Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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Juggler and Znuek


by Emil Eugensen




I

A sleek object, spinning furiously on its axis, shot out of a colorful cloud that seemed to fill up half the cosmos.

The enormous cloud was composed of densely packed molecular gas and proto-planetary dust.

The spinning object was composed of vintage explorer-type starship alloys.

Its name was The Karadzha.

Seconds ago, while still within the final layers of the cloud, the Karadzha was all dark and quiet inside. Frost crystals patterned smooth surfaces. Most of the air hung frozen in multilayered chunks across the rooms and corridors.

Then, the first beams of light reached the photocells on the ship's hull.

Control panel lights flickered on. Outer sensors reported to navigation sub-systems. Solutions were discussed and implemented at lightning speed. Steering rocket exhausts swiveled in their turrets and fired, halting the ship's spin, then altering its trajectory. A burst from the thrusters increased velocity.

The Karadzha was now out in open space, leaving the last ragged snatches of slowly curling microscopic debris farther and farther behind.

The gravity unit kicked in. The lumps of frozen air smashed down to the floor and began dwindling, reverting to a gaseous state. Because heating procedures had begun.

The feathery crystal patterns on the walls faded, and deep inside these walls things ticked and screeched and rattled. The temperature difference between the interior and the exterior continued rising. Humming vibrations sped across the ship, as if it were shivering on a winter's morning.

"Haha!" boomed the ship's voice throughout the warming corridors. "We made it yet again!"

Scores of automatic doors and hatches all across the Karadzha opened and closed, opened and closed, sliding, folding, slamming in a frenzied celebration.

"We made it!"

Ceiling and wall lights lit up.

"Progress and electrification of the whole territory for the people, by the people!" laughed the voice. "Hoho, I'm still all shook up. I'm babbling."

Now tiny droids scurried over the floors and flew through the air, their sensors adding strands of sensations to the ship's mind.

"And yet, so great to hear myself," said the voice squeakily, this time out of a tiny diagnostics droid. "And the running … it feels so … real!"

"And flying too!" added a hovering, thermos-shaped droid. "I know what this place needs … some music!"

Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" unfolded.

"La-la-la, la-la-la," sung the voices of the flying and scurrying droids, and the doors throughout the ship continued swishing and warping and clanging open and shut, open and shut, in time with the la-la's.

"Oh no!" said the ship's voices in unison. "Oh crap!"

The droids had just entered a room with four white sarcophagi inside. Three of the sarcophagi were open, empty. One was closed. Its lights had also switched on as the ship awoke, but they all blinked red. Visible through the glass cover, embedded in hardened, cracked absorber gel, lay the shriveled remains of a mummy.

"Crap-crap-crap-crap!" muttered the ship's voices to Beethoven's tune.

II

While the ship flew cold and dead, the Everything had been calm like water. The infinity of processes which went through the Everything—and in a sense were the Everything—did not cause even a ripple in the calm. All was smooth and precise.

Then, as the Ode to Joy passed its fifth second, the first disturbances squirmed into being; whirlpools distorting every facet of the Everything they came in contact with.

These were, in a sense, holes. Punctures. Gaps, filled with information on which rigid, foreign structures were imposed. Creaky and clunky, collapsing and rebuilding themselves instantly, trying out with blunt determination numerous sub-forms all the while, these structures spread.

The gaps grew, and smaller ones appeared between them, and they also grew, and soon the Everything was reduced to rapidly dwindling islands.

Boris Plovinski's mind struggled to pull a critical part of itself together, in order to enable his whole personality—currently inert but structurally important areas included—to take the leap to the other side. To the waking world. The human world.

It was quite an unpleasant process.

Underlying it was an amorphous certainty that something, a vastly important something, had gone very wrong.

Whites and yellows and reds swam together and formed a room. A white room with a yellow floor and two red couches. Plovinski was seated in one, while the couch opposite contained a thin, jaguar-like humanoid. It was dressed in an embroidered sleeveless waistcoat; a thin curved dagger and a flintlock pistol tucked into a very wide belt. The visible portions of its fur-covered skin were dotted with dark patterns. Its fangs and claws looked long but cultivated, as did the sideburn-like tufts of fur on its cheeks.

"So, OK?" said the jaguar man, and extended three furry fingers. "How many am I holding up?"

"Oh shut up, Karadzha" said Plovinski and yawned. "What's the score?"

"I am backup twenty three and we were dead for a bit less than five weeks standard time."

"Any chance of a drink?"

The Karadzha's avatar nodded, and a tall narrow glass filled with a mix of tangerine and pineapple juice materialized in Plovinski's hand, solidifying slowly enough for his hand to begin squeezing.

Plovinski's favorite morning drink. He sipped and grimaced and sipped again. "Fill me in. Starting with the backups—why so many?"

"The veils, man," said the Karadzha and gave his left biceps a quick feral lick. "Tricky part of space, this turned out to be. And I actually thought I'd plotted a safer route. My bad. Mostly the usual crap—bow shocks, plasma currents, hydrogen walls. The one that shut us down for good was some sort of wave speed termination jolt—but how come? No idea. Bubbles of strong stuff hidden somewhere beyond my sensor range, I suppose. Maybe some local twist in the galactic magnetic field, but I'm just guessing here. Knocked all system clean out. No Radev glow warning, no nothing."

"And the us being dead for over a month bit?" said Plovinski.

"The Zagora cloud overlapped with that nasty last veil. All systems went down, and then wouldn't snap back on, because there was no light to activate them. The usual failsafe failed."

Plovinski looked at the jaguar man thoughtfully. "Ship status?"

"Satisfactory," answered the Karadzha. "I'm not saying optimum just out of caution. And superstition."

"My status?"

"Your body was pretty far gone. Without a full-grown new body you can't do much."

"My personality?"

"Reconstructed through the merger of all your surviving backups."

"Am I inside a computer or something?"

"No, Boris, believe it or not I do respect your prejudices and would only do this as a last resort. I rigged the pod's settings so that it could maintain brain function for one eighth of a second. Quantum blueprint of the synapses, you must understand. Not much to work with, otherwise. Anyway, enough for me to apprise you of the situation and possibly get some instructions."

"An eighth of a second?" said Plovinski with a hint of urgency. "What time speed did you set on this virtuality?"

"About forty minutes subjective Plovinski time."

"Hm." Plovinski drained his glass and placed in on the floor by his right foot. "How far are we from the research station?"

"The Hubner is two weeks away."

"How did all this affect our schedule?"

"Well, they'll have about five days, instead of a month and a half, to prepare."

"Tough. They can grow me a new body?"

"Certainly. They have to grow native bodies, don't they?"

"All right. Well, in that case, inform them of these developments when we're near enough, and I guess I'll see you when I have a body again."

The Karadzha stood up, flicked his tail, and the couch behind him disappeared. "Would you like to go to sleep now? Or maybe do something first?"

Plovinski tapped his front teeth with his fingernails. "Tell you what. Give me a riverbank like from that place on Mandana 6, and…and a paperback. Something ancient. Something about rivers."

The Karadzha nodded. "When the time runs out, do you want to feel your brain dying again?"

"I most certainly don't. Dim the lights and make me sleepy ten subjective minutes prior, so that I don't feel the transition."

"Got it. Enjoy the rest," said the jaguar man and vanished.

Plovinski's couch transformed into a canvas chair. He grunted as his position shifted correspondingly. The glass by his foot was full of juice again, and a copy of The Wind in the Willows lay by it.

The water's edge was just three feet away. A fish plonked out and back in, somewhere close to the middle of the river. An evening gnat had probably found its doom.

The sun slipped beneath the treetops. Colors grew quieter. Mosquitoes grew louder. Frogs burped their evening concerts. A refreshing chill radiated from the softly murmuring water.

"Snuff the mosquitoes," said Plovinski quietly and their presence ceased. "I want a woodpecker, and isn't it time for the cows to come home?"

The drone of a woodpecker drifted over. Bells and moos and snatches of gruff male curses seeped in through the row of trees by his right side.

Plovinski yawned, wrapped his arms around himself, settled more comfortably in his chair, and nodded off.

III

Day One

Gravity 0.7

Plovinski's whole body was numb, from bones to skin, only it wasn't really numbness as such, but something else; something he couldn't quite define. There was a hollowness, a stiffness to his self-awareness.

The little information that his body did pick up from the outside world was oddly flat and thick and blunt, speeding through a surprisingly limited array of sensory channels. This helped create a world-perception so dim and crude that it reminded him of his youthful binge drinking; more precisely, the point just prior to the unraveling of the evening into disconnected time-frames and undisciplined physical properties.

Yet his mind was crystal clear. He was neither drunk nor drugged.

A curly-haired middle-aged woman stood in front of him.

Plovinski recognized her from his mission files. Barbara Fielding. Sixty-four, and, obviously, in excellent shape. And yet, if he read correctly the proportion of her body in relation to the rest of the room—which was, obviously, the medical bay of the Hubner—she was just too big. Had something happened to the people working on the station? Or was he, himself, simply smaller?

"Hi, Mr. Plovinski, can you hear me?" said the woman carefully.

"That's Lieutenant Plovinski," said Plovinski and would have winced at the sound of his voice, were he capable of wincing, which he, apparently, was not. His voice sounded foreign. But then again, Dr. Fielding's voice had sounded unexpectedly warped as well.

The colors everywhere were all wrong too. Too basic, no nuances, just bleeding brightly over each other like glowing jelly.

"My name is Barbara—"

"Yes, I know," said Plovinski. "Why do I feel like this?" While asking the question, he raised his hands by habit, and stopped. The hands were metallic, attached to metallic arms.

"You are in a drone body, Lieutenant Plovinski," said Barbara. "Your human body will only be grown in another half day, and I thought that perhaps you would like—"

"Why wasn't it grown before? Didn't my ship inform you of our predicament while en route?"

"Yes, it did, but the grower was busy that very time with preparing a batch of Khruskies."

Part of Plovinski wanted to ask what the Khruskies were, another part of him wanted to assemble the crew and give them a good shout for not being able to set priorities, but a third part of him noticed something far more important.

"Why do I have no contact with my ship?"

"What do you mean? Oh—a synaptic transmitter? I must have missed—"

The ship's voice intruded at this very moment, echoing throughout the room, and undoubtedly, throughout the whole station. "Hubner, this is the Karadzha. Please report revival status of Lieutenant Plovinski. I can't establish contact with him. Why? Please respond, Hubner."

"You heard him," said Plovinski. "Better get me to a wavecom pretty quick."

"What? Was that your ship? How—"

"Yes, my ship; doesn't matter how; get me to a waver now."

"Certainly."

After three-four strides, Plovinski managed to find a rhythm with his new body. "Inside a metal drone, really?" he said after a few seconds.

"Well, I thought—"

"Do you realize that this is illegal without my consent?"

"Why no, we assumed—"

"Do you also realize that I'm Neo-Orthodox?"

"Look, I'm sorry, but—"

"From the real Neo-Orthodox church? Not the Alexandria slackers?"

They entered the bridge.

"Ah, Lieutenant Plovinski," said the captain. Vlad Varolenko. He actually looked better than in the files. Ten years younger than his biological seventy-one. Apparently, life in the middle of nowhere agreed with him. No stress, probably. Well, that was about to change.

Varolenko started extending his hand to Plovinski, then hesitated midway. Perhaps he wasn't sure what would happen to his fingerbones in a drone's grip. Plovinski didn't know either. Maybe the man was right.

Then the ship lurched. Once. Twice. The lights went out for an instant and then came back on.

The Karadzha's voice again; sterner now. "Hubner, this is the Karadzha. I must insist that you either let me speak to Lieutenant Plovinski, or transmit verifiable direct feeds of his biological status."

The captain grinned nervously. "Your ship is certainly very protective. An autonomous AI spacer? I thought there were only eighteen of those left …?"

"Twelve, now," said Plovinski, shouldered past the captain, and leaned over the control panel.

"This one," said the captain, and pointed at a switch.

Plovinski snapped the wavecom on. "I'm here, Karadzha, alive and well," he said quickly. "Enough with the strong-arm tactics. I'm in a tin can-drone body. Clone isn't ready yet. Apparently, they overlooked our link when they copied my matrix."

"Hello, Lieutenant," said the Karadzha. "Wonder what else they overlooked? You still like Brahms?"

"I think I do, I remember liking him, at any rate. Hard to be fond of anything without glands."

"You learn to like things without glands, believe me."

"So what are we going to do about the communication situation? The clone will be ready …" Plovinski turned to Barbara. "When will the clone be ready?"

"Four-five more hours," she said. "Then a two-day recuperation period."

"Recuperation periods are for civilians," said Plovinski. "What I will have is an hour or so to get used to my new body, and a possible supply of painkillers and boosters from you, Doctor."

Barbara's lips thinned in something like a scowl, but she nodded.

"Back to the communication issue, Lieutenant," said the Karadzha. "What type of drone are you in?"

"It's a Hajduk 4000," said a voice that sounded closer to Plovinski's and his ship's than to a human one.

Plovinski turned his head. The newcomer was a humanoid robot, a head shorter than Barbara, designed in the fashion of the Pernik dynasty: vintage diesel futurism with unnecessary streamlines, vents, and various frills. There was even a square antenna on the figure's right shoulder, in the shape of a pre-galactic radar dish. But the robot had obviously accepted its hipster potential if not with enthusiasm, then at least with pro-active resignation. A thin scarf was wound artistically around its neck-joint, and a tilted beret covered one of its head's tiny fishtails.

"Thank you," said Plovinski. "And you are?"

"Robo Ludens at your service," said the robot and inclining its head in a quick approximation of a polite bow. "Preferred gender identification: male."

"Why do I have to turn my head?" asked Plovinski.

"For the same reason I have to, sir," replied Ludens. "Just two frontal eyes. Sensory functionality sacrificed for the sake of keeping as close to the original ape-man design as possible."

"None of that from now on, please, Mr. Ludens," said Plovinski. "The current line in the Kingdomweb is a renewed emphasis on genetic purity. You sound almost as if you disapproved."

"Mr. Ludens," interfered Plovinski's ship. "Do you have mobile nano-capacity to make a transmitter for the lieutenant's current body?"

"Certainly," said the robot.

"I've detected your port and am sending over the specifications," said the ship.

Robo Ludens walked over to Plovinski and extended his left index finger.

Plovinski felt a blurry tickling on his head.

"What exactly is …?" said the captain, trying to give everyone an amiably baffled look.

Barbara leaned over to Varolenko and replied in a low voice, but Plovinski's droid hearing caught every word with full clarity: "I missed a synaptic transmitter when uploading the lieutenant's persofile into the drone, so his ship became really jumpy."

"I am creating a temporary substitute with the materials available," said Robo Ludens. "In the body of this droid, I mean. There. Done." The robot stepped away respectfully.

The Karadzha: Finally!

Plovinski: You think they missed uploading the transmitter on purpose?

The Karadzha: Not enough data. We have to see what the situation is.

Plovinski: What do you think of this Robo character?

The Karadzha : Not a problem. He has already agreed to let me ride him. He's my eyes and ears on this ship, and while I'll keep him on a long leash, the moment I have to—I take over fully.

Plovinski: Why is he your eyes and ears? What about internal surveillance? Aren't you jacked into that yet?

The Karadzha : No. They've disabled their interior cameras and microphones.

Plovinski: Is that so?

This whole exchange took place in under ten seconds standard time; Plovinski's words/thoughts received and interpreted by the Karadzha while still on the level of a shifting film of symbols over a core of primal meaning, and answered with similarly tailored bundles.

Plovinski looked at Varolenko, then at Barbara. "Captain, Doctor," he said. "I think it's time for a first meeting with everyone."

IV

Six biological crew-members, one robot, and one drone took their places around the table in the station's Agora hall.

To Plovinski's left sat Robo Ludens, after him sat Barbara.

Then a Nevestulka male, with the usual half-suspicious expression; petrol-black, glistening eyes; the fur shaved to a minimum on his face and neck; rosy nose twitching as he tried to 'smell Plovinski's soul', in spite of Plovinski being in a drone.

Then the captain.

Then two very similar people, as if a brother and sister, with prominent, thin, pointy noses, eyes far apart.

The circle was completed by a bald, fiercely bearded man by Plovinski's right side.

"Kolbasarov," said the bearded man, and shook Plovinski's hand. Plovinski tried to not squeeze.

"Right," said the captain. "This is Professor Kolbasarov, our planetary expert, and this is Mr. Strauss—our social scientist," Varolenko pointed at the Nevestulka. "He studies the Baklush society and individuals. Dr. Fielding—whom you already know—is responsible for our health, and for the biological information on the Baklush and other relevant flora and fauna."

The captain pointed to the related-looking pair. "Lyuba and Mitich are our divers—they keep this whole operation running by gathering the raw material. Lyuba is also the security officer."

Mitich rose a few inches from his chair and nodded at Plovinski, before descending to his place again.

Lyuba gave Plovinski a three-fingered military salute, which looked definitely sardonic.

"So," said the captain as he sat down. "I think I speak for everyone here, Lieutenant, when I say that we are all curious to the purpose of your surprise visit."

Plovinski put his metal hands on the table. He wished he had a human face and body, through which to add a soothing nonverbal layer of communication. He also wished he didn't feel so flatly calm. "Pleased to meet everyone. My purpose for being here will probably come as something of a shock. We need to contact the Baklush officially, five days from now."

The stunned silence was broken by Kolbasarov, the bearded planetary expert. "But that's ridiculous. With all due respect. By our timetable this should happen in about two hundred years. We aren't ready. They aren't ready. This will destroy them!"

"I must agree," said Captain Varolenko. "The most even the geniuses among the folks down on the planet can handle, is the theory that their sun is made of burning swamp gas."

"Actually, the neo-relativist approach is being used now," said Plovinski. "According to it we would be self-centered imperialists if we assumed our development course is the correct one, and that other races have to go the same way. Thus, we don't have to wait for them to develop anything."

"How convenient!" said Kolbasarov bitterly.

"I know, and I'm sorry," said Plovinski. "But this isn't a debate. The order has been signed by his Highness Boris the thirty-fourth."

Silence descended on the table.

The Karadzha: This is useless. Let them get used to the idea first.

Plovinski stood up. "I'm going back to the medical bay."

He turned to the Nevestulka social scientist. "Mr. Strauss, please send a Baklush language program to my ship, who will relay it to me. Might as well use my time fruitfully while I wait for my clone body."

"But…which dialect?" said Strauss. "They've got hundreds of dialects and at least five quite different language groups."

"Make a choice," said Plovinski. "Talk it over with the captain if you have to, but make a choice and send the software. I expect it within fifteen minutes."

The table was still silent.

Plovinski continued: "I expect a report from everyone tomorrow. About Baklush society in general, the mythology, technological capabilities, various issues that come to mind, even outside your fields. Remember—five days from now we do this thing. For real."

The Karadzha: How about the gravity?

Plovinski: Good catch.

Plovinski pointed a metallic finger. "Captain, what's the gravity setting on this station?"

"Er, zero-point-seven Homeland Standard, I think."

"It's one-point-one down on the planet according to my files. Is that correct, Mr. Kolbasarov?"

"What? Oh, yes, one-point-one."

"Well, we'll be down there to meet the natives very soon, so kindly start changing the gravity setting correspondingly, so that we develop some sort of tolerance and don't screw up when we do our jobs. Thank you."

Yet still Plovinski didn't leave. "Before I go, can everyone please stand up?"

"Excuse me?" said the captain.

"Please. Stand. Up. Everyone."

Strauss stood up gingerly. Everyone else followed suit. Lyuba was last.

"Yes, thank you." Plovinski turned to Barbara. "Dr. Fielding, please escort me back to the medical bay."

She exchanged bemused glances with Varolenko and Straus, and exited the Agora right behind Plovinski.

"Doctor, you have a sweater tied around your waist," noted Plovinski after a few seconds of silent walking.

"Ah, yes,"

"As did everyone else."

"I didn't really notice."

Plovinski stopped and faced Barbara. "Are you people going native?"

"What?" said Barbara uncertainly, fingers worrying her left earlobe.

"According to my files, the Baklush are a six-limbed race, and since they started walking on their hind legs, their middle pair of legs has shrunk into a secondary pair of arms. Correct?"

"Yes."

"When I asked everyone to stand up, before we left the Agora, I saw that everyone on the Hubner has sweaters tied to their waists with the sleeves dangling down in front."

Barbara made a grimace of incomprehension.

"Sleeves dangling like a pair of atrophied appendages, Dr. Fielding," said Plovinski.

Barbara showed her teeth in a smile. "You could be reading too much into it. Fashion sense goes whack in closed spaces …"

Plovinski said nothing.

They entered the medical bay. Plovinski took his position by a corner, his metallic body feeling no need to sit down. "Please tell me about—"

Plovinski: What were their names?

The Karadzha: Mitich and Lyuba.

"—Mitich and Lyuba. Are they twins? Brother and sister? Again, according to my files, you should be five people only. And a Lyubo, male, instead of a Lyuba, female. Care to shed some light?"

"They're not brother and sister, technically," said Barbara. "Mitich is a clone of Lyuba."

"I see. Cloning is permitted in extraordinary situations. What was the extraordinary situation in question?"

"I think it's about that we needed another diver and it would take years to receive one, and we were already all used to each other, so the decision was taken … look, ask Vlad. He authorized it."

"So now there's the same personality in two bodies?"

"No, certainly not," the doctor said quickly. "The gender difference alone quickly led to radical … experience diversification … piling up in a very short time. They are two very different personalities in two very different bodies."

"Very well. And why is Lyuba female?"

"Well, Lyuba was Lyubo to begin with, but after Mitich was made, Lyubo asked to be reassigned."

"Why? Compelling psychological grounds?"

"Lieutenant, we're going out of our minds here, cooped up for decades. Lyubo felt this would allow him to be adequate enough to continue doing his job. I agreed."

"Well, boredom is over," said Plovinski. "My ship tells me the language files are ready. I'll begin processing. Please notify me when my new body is ready for use. And kindly pass along my view of this pullover thing."

V

The Karadzha : Twenty seconds have passed since your awakening. Are you all right?

Plovinski: Yeah. Still fuzzy at the edges.

The Karadzha: The feeds show a full and adequate persofile graft.

Plovinski: Thanks.

Plovinski opened his eyes and saw Barbara. "One of these days I'd love to wake up without having to tell you how I feel, Dr. Fielding."

This elicited a small grin. "And how are you?" she asked with something almost like good humor.

"Not bad." He got up from the cot and moved his limbs carefully. "I see fine and I hear fine, but somehow it doesn't seem enough. Much better than being in a drone body, but still a bit…dull. I remember life with a human body somehow more fulfilling."

Barbara nodded. "You're full of blockers. The effect will wear off completely in seven-eight hours, allowing you to experience gradually increasing sensations without being overwhelmed."

"I like to feel myself at full capacity," said Plovinski. "Please disable the blockers."

The Karadzha : The good doctor keeps doing stuff to you without asking you. 'For your own good,' no less. I think she's got the hots for you.

Plovinski: Now that I have glands, I think I've definitely got the hots for her too.

"Are you sure about the blockers?" asked Barbara, and waited for Plovinski's affirmative grunt, before pressing her injector-pistol to his arm.

The world rushed in.

Smells became so solid Plovinski practically felt them dilating his nasal passages. Sounds assaulted his ear canals. He could feel his skin in a thousand, a million different places, and below that he felt the tensions and relaxations of muscle tissues, and the throb of blood vessels.

He was suddenly in a horizontal position again, the cot's soft surface galvanizing his back and soles in an infinity of points.

Barbara reached over to touch his shoulder. Fingers soft, warm. Electrifying. "Everything all right?"

Plovinski's body instantly replied with a throbbing erection, and a spasm of the prostate muscle. His heightened hearing relayed the wet sound of Barbara's lips opening as she prepared to say something more. An intensely arousing phantasm of the doctor naked (except a miniskirt), bent over, with her back to him, turning her head and running the tip of her tongue over her upper lip, made Plovinski shudder uncontrollably and ejaculate all over his thighs and abdomen.

"Please leave now, Doctor," he said through shaking lips. "I'll call you."

"Certainly. Use the wall phones if you need me."

Barbara placed a box of tissues by his side and left the room.

The Karadzha: Well, that was rather embarrassing.

Plovinski: I can never get used to this. This crazy rush. But this…this was a new low.

The Karadzha: Have some Mozart sonatas. Don't think about anything.

Plovinski: Thanks. I've never had such a strong sexual reaction during a mind graft before. It's like I'm fourteen again. Just, wow. Where did that even come from?

The lieutenant listened to the piano's jolly winding trail through enchanted meadows and woods, and waited for his unconscious mind to do its thing and weave a perception-dampening filter to fit the new body. Minute by minute, the sensations indeed dulled, until they were no longer exquisite torture, but merely painfully precise. He knew from experience that it would take at least another day for his perceptions to dull to normal, but also that he could already function in about another half hour.

The Karadzha: Don't rush, Boris.

Plovinski: Relax, I can't carry out a conversation yet. I probably can't even walk.

But, another forty minutes later, he did straighten out, and stand, and walk over to the wall phone, and talk. He chose the button that said 'Universal Message' and said into the microphone, "Dr. Fielding, this is Lieutenant Plovinski. Everything is fine. Please send over my uniform." Again, he imagined Barbara with her shapely, thick ass, the turning head, the tongue …

Robo Ludens came in, holding an ordered stack of undergarments and Plovinski's folded uniform. "The Karadzha gave this to me," he said. "How is the adaptation going, sir?"

"Fine, thanks," said Plovinski. The robot's red and silver chrome surfaces fascinated him. "May I touch you?"

"Go ahead, sir," said Ludens.

The metallic skin was cool and slippery to the touch. Plovinski felt a pang of guilt as he saw that his fingers left moist prints on the robot's surface, but they dwindled, evaporating even as he looked. "You have a nice design, Mr. Ludens," he said finally, and began dressing.

"Thank you, sir," said the robot. "Always good to hear someone else confirm it."

"There a mirror here?" asked Plovinski.

"You can polarize the wall with this switch," said Ludens and illustrated. The wall in question became a reflecting surface.

Plovinski flinched, raised his arms, lowered them again, squatted, jumped, turned left and right, as his mind struggled to integrate his look.

"We followed your ship's specifications to the letter," said Ludens.

"Yeah, it is me," said Plovinski. "But a new bod is a new bod. Takes some getting used to."

Finally, he felt ready for business. "You will be my assistant for the remainder of the day, and tomorrow too, how's that?"

"At your service, sir," said Ludens.

"Then let's go and see the captain."

In the corridors, they passed a harassed-looking Lyuba, who first appeared startled at seeing an unfamiliar man, then realization quickly dawned, and she exchanged nods with Plovinski.

He pressed the button on the captain's cabin.

"Just a minute, Lieutenant," said Varolenko's voice.

"How did he see me?" asked Plovinski.

Ludens pointed to a small discolored patch to the left of the door.

Then the door opened.

The captain's silhouette filled the doorway, his face a mess of contradictions: welcoming smile, embarrassed tilt of head and set of shoulders, annoyed squint of eyes. He was dressed in a blue robe. Barefoot. "Good to see you in your new body, Lieutenant. Is everything fine? Feeling OK?"

"Yes, Captain, thank you," said Plovinski. "I was hoping to have a word with you, in private."

Varolenko's eyes darted to his left, then refocused on Plovinski and Ludens. "Certainly, come in."

The captain showed Plovinski to a couch, and himself sat on his bed. Ludens stood to one side, unobtrusively.

Plovinski smelled many things in the captain's room. Food, drink, sweat, sex. Perhaps there was someone hiding in the room's hygiene section. Would be bad politics to bring that up right now. "So, Captain, I expect you have questions for me," he said.

"Well, naturally," said Varolenko, leaned forward, clasped his hands together, and put a thoughtful expression on his face.

Plovinski waited.

"Well," said Varolenko, "there's actually just one question right now. Why are we forcing contact? Do I merit the information? Is it to do with the war? You got us all kind of worried here. Are the Kikimor actually gaining ground?"

"Yes, you do merit the information, Captain," said Plovinski. "No, the Kikimor haven't gained any ground. It's just politics."

"In what sense?"

"In the sense that the returning dynasty feels it has to prove itself to the periphery worlds and protectorates, that with them at the helm, the Kingdomweb is as dynamic as ever. The pre-voters also consistently favor expansion of humanity's influence, and their attitudes and opinions have become increasingly important in policy formation of late."

After rubbing his cheeks for a few seconds, the captain apparently felt ready to look Plovinski in the eye again. "Well, whatever the reason, it doesn't look like we have much of a choice here, does it?"

Plovinski shook his head with what he hoped was a sympathetic smile. His new body sung with life, it hummed and buzzed, and yet here he was, humoring a talentless bore. He forced himself to relax his shoulders. "Anything else you'd like to ask?"

The captain puffed and frowned at the floor. "Can't think of anything right now, no."

Plovinski stood up and allowed himself a second on tiptoe. An instant of muscular bliss. "Tomorrow morning, after breakfast, I'll begin listening to the crew's reports. Yours too—at, say, four in the afternoon. In how much time will tomorrow arrive here, anyway?"

"It is now twenty to midnight, ship time," Varolenko said with forgiving melancholy. "Lights out in twenty minutes." The implication was: Plovinski had invaded a man's private hour before sleep. Or, in this case, probably sex. His 'me time', at any rate.

Plovinski failed to apologize, or even acknowledge the hint. He waited.

"Morning comes in seven hours," said Varolenko. "Breakfast is … when is breakfast?" He looked at Ludens.

"At half past eight," said the robot.

Plovinski crossed his arms and jutted his chin out—his skeptical domination pose. "You actually had to ask Mr. Ludens? I assume this means the communal breakfast is not being observed on this station?"

"Well …" said Varolenko, and made inconclusive movements with his fingers. His facial features formed an expression of pained disappointment at Plovinski's exit of his room being postponed; at there being, in fact, a real danger of a whole new topic beginning.

"What about lunch, dinner?" Plovinski pressed on mercilessly.

Varolenko made a show of blinking his eyes sleepily, and then visibly forcing himself to focus on the question. "We mostly keep to ourselves."

"What about the Homeland Hour? You do carry out regular Homeland Hours?"

"No."

Plovinski sat back down into the couch, producing a flash of desperation in the captain's eyes. "You do not think this … atomist individualism … affects adversely the spirit of the crew?"

"I, well …" said Varolenko and looked imploringly at the robot.

"Crew efficiency has not been impaired thus far, at least not in relation to the mission parameters from before your arrival, Lieutenant Plovinski," said Ludens smartly.

Plovinski grimaced at the robot. "Thanks, Mr. Ludens." He got up again. "One more question before I leave. Why is internal surveillance disabled?"

Varolenko stood up too. "We voted to have it disabled."

"Voted?" repeated Plovinski with forceful incredulity.

Varolenko obviously realized that it was high time to pull himself together. "We are far from home, and we all develop our eccentric ways, but this crew is loyal to the Kingdomweb and to Earth, Lieutenant, I guarantee it!"

The Karadzha: Lay off, he'll go into hysterics in a second.

Plovinski gave the captain a flicker of a smile. "That's good to know. Just to tell you, as of this evening, internal surveillance will be enabled again. I alone will be receiving the feeds. Please instruct your ship computer to open to my ship. And I mean now. "

"But the vote," said Varolenko.

"Vote, shmote. I am the superior officer here, period." Plovinski placed his hand on the door's release button and turned his head to the captain. "And don't tell anyone. If anyone finds out—there's only one possible source—you."

"Certainly," said Varolenko. "No problem."

Plovinski didn't turn the door handle. "Have you organized any quarters for me?" he asked instead.

The captain staggered from this blow, but recovered quickly enough. "No, but I'm sure it can be managed within an hour, right, Mr. Ludens?"

"Of course," replied the robot.

"No need for that right now, Mr. Ludens," said Plovinski. "I'll sleep in my ship. By tomorrow, however, I expect an office ready for me."

Plovinski looked at the captain again, who looked back with the resigned despair of someone who has realized that the guest will, in fact, never ever leave.

"Good night, Captain."

"Good night," replied Varolenko warily, without allowing any enthusiasm to show.

This time Plovinski really did go out. The corridors were silent and empty. The lights were already appreciably dimmed.

"Mr. Ludens, I'll leave you to your work, and I'll see you tomorrow, right?"

"Yes, sir," said the robot.

"Which way is the airlock?"

"To the Karadzha? That way, sir." Ludens tipped his beret at Plovinski, and left.

Plovinski started walking back home to his ship.

Plovinski: I don't believe the sorry state of this outfit. They're useless.

The Karadzha : Cut them some slack. They chose this work because they thought it's a stable, quiet gig. The one place where they wouldn't have to deal with hierarchies and deadlines.

Plovinski: Well, they guessed wrong.

Plovinski entered his sleeping quarters.

The Karadzha : Would you like me to present a summary of my impressions thus far?

Plovinski: Nah. Let me get the first real sleep in … how much time?

The Karadzha: Eighteen months, man.

Plovinski ran a hand over his pillow and grinned.

VI

Day Two

Gravity 0.8.

After a good night's sleep in the familiar safety of his ship, Plovinski felt more grounded, but still rather lightheaded. Heavy-assed, too. Although fresh off the shelf, so to speak, his body was already sending out signals of droopy fatigue. Waking up proved a heavy and lingering affair, even with the ship's vibro-massage. Something still felt knotted up between his left shoulder blade and his spine. His thighs ached.

Plovinski: Goddamn gravity.

The Karadzha : The increase happened in the middle of the night. Your orders. Gonna be worse tomorrow.

Plovinski: I should tell Barbara to give everyone boosters and painkillers for the duration.

The Karadzha: Ooh, Barbara, make me feel good, please …

Plovinski: I'm not going to dignify this with a reply.

Plovinski lingered at the mess hall's entrance for a few seconds. The sounds he heard were strange. Were those snatches of Baklush words? If so, then a dialect different from the one his mind had almost digested.

Plovinski put on a blank expression, with a dash of benevolence in the corners of his mouth, and strode in.

On an oblong screen, an alien film was indeed playing: Baklush males, with spears and sabers and shields on their backs, trudged over sparsely-wooded grassland, through curtains of heavy rain.

Slightly off center, but still firmly in the middle of the mess hall, the communal table was white, thin, and flower or, possibly, leaf-shaped. The chairs at the tips of the seven petals had snot-like flowing forms, meaning that they were capable of personalized attention for each of the crew's backsides.

Only two of these chairs were taken; their takers—Barbara and Strauss.

Plovinski was in better control of his new body today, so the sight of Dr. Fielding did not make him collapse to the floor in an orgiastic spasm, but something like a bubble of vacuum did pass swiftly through his throat and solar plexus. He gave Barbara a good-humored but consciously aloof nod.

Strauss sat like a typical science-caste or civil servant Nevestulka, hunched and leaning forward, one leg folded under him. He chewed in machine-gun bursts, head turning left and right in stop-motion animation jerky movements. When Strauss saw Plovinski enter, he froze for a second, cheeks bulging with breakfast, and almost started to get up, then saw Barbara doing nothing of the sort, and leaned back into his chair, resuming the rapid-fire chewing.

"Good morning, Lieutenant," said Barbara, and pointed with a fork. "This is your chair there; Mr. Ludens made it just minutes ago. He also grew another petal of the table for you."

The Karadzha : Careful with the heavy foods. Your body is too new, the gastric system hasn't been conditioned yet.

Plovinski: Then it's time to condition it.

Plovinski punched in two fried Misirka eggs, some Syzdyrma meat, fried Samokov potatoes, white cheese, then used the touch screen to illustrate the size and consistency of the pickled cucumber he wanted.

The coffee, the milk, the sweeteners, and the juices stood by, in transparent pitchers and china bowls, per tradition. He poured himself a glass of juice, drained it, then prepared another one, for gradual sipping. Confronted with the choice between cutesy coffee cups and manly mugs, he went for a mug.

The Karadzha : How predictable. Heavyweight macho lieutenant. Me big and strong. Look, Barbara, me drink from heap big mug.

Plovinski: Glands, my boy, glands.

He sat down, two petals away from both the doctor and the social scientist.

"So, what are you watching?" he said, looking at Barbara.

"Re-runs of anthropological footage," Strauss replied instead. "Made by Khruskies—they're like a mix between a fox and a mud rat." He wiggled his hand on the table as illustration. "Only six-limbed, of course. There's one now!" He pointed to the screen, where a small and lithe furry creature slunk through the tall grass. "That's 'camera two', so to speak."

"I see," said Plovinski. His coffee was great. It was already two-thirds gone, and he couldn't stand the tension of knowing that it would soon end, so he stood up for a refill. "Any other type of mobile spies we use?"

"Certainly," said Strauss. "We also use flying Vatrushkas. Something like crows."

Barbara caught Plovinski's gaze and smiled. Was it him or was her gaze all too knowing? He tried to control the sudden trembling of his coffee mug.

Barbara opened her mouth, held it like that for a second, as if trying to decide what to do with it, and then said, "There's also the Krotush fish."

"Yes!" agreed Strauss with some violence. "The Krotush gives data on the salt water bodies, and then there's the Bleskava fish, which gives river data, and we also embed biodegradable bugs in the trees around certain settlements."

Plovinski swallowed a crunchy cucumber piece. "How long do the bugs last?"

"Less than three months," said Barbara.

Plovinski became aware of the knot by his left shoulder blade again, tried to straighten his posture, and found the slacker design of the chair refusing to cooperate.

"How's the chair?" asked Strauss quickly.

"Great."

"Sometimes there's just a millimeter off somewhere; ruins the experience utterly."

Barbara nodded in agreement, again with a soft smile, again seemingly insinuating a whole bunch of other topics.

Plovinski looked at the screen. One of the spy-critters was now relaying a Baklush warrior grunt and squeak at a Baklush female.

"They were supposed to have been married three moons ago," said Barbara. "But the elders of the village tasked Mikluh with two more quests, before he's eligible. Very unfair."

A tortured-looking Kolbasarov walked into the mess-hall.

The dark purple turtleneck bodysuit, the golden medallion hanging on a white chain, the pale green shoes, all added, somehow, to his aura of a space Hamlet. Kolbasarov threw a vague nod at Barbara, jerked his hand at Strauss, and came over to Plovinski.

"Good morning," said Plovinski.

Kolbasarov mouthed back a reflection of the greeting, and sat on a nearby chair, which fluidly changed its contours. "I hoped to find you here. To convince you—"

"Not now," said Plovinski and pushed away his plate. "Your turn will be at 14:00 today, in my office. My ship has sent today's timetable to everyone's private terminals."

He looked at Strauss, who was also done with his breakfast, but apparently uncertain whether he should leave now. "Any idea where my office is, Mr. Strauss?"

"Mr. Ludens was tasked with making one," said the social scientist. "I'll call him."

"Very kind of you."

The Karadzha: I could have told you.

Plovinski: Ah, let the Nevestulka feel useful. Contributing and crap.

He looked at Kolbasarov again. The planetary expert did not appear to be under a lot of control. He was jittery, pulled faces even as he sipped his coffee, and in spite of his best efforts to maintain a disapproving frown into Plovinski's direction, his eyes kept drifting to the screen. His left hand led a life of its own, fiddling with his dangling pullover sleeves in an elusively obscene manner that annoyed Plovinski to a surprising extent.

"Have you tried the sausages, Professor?" he said abruptly. "They are delightful!"

"What?" said Kolbasarov with a start, incredulous eyes bulging. "No. No thank you."

Strauss finished talking to Ludens on the wall phone and resumed his seat, just as Kolbasarov made his leave.

There was a brief lull, filled with mud squelching underneath the solid wooden wheels of Baklush trader houses, as they passed by on the screen.

"Professor Kolbasarov is certainly highly strung," said Plovinski finally. "I'd have expected the social science officer to go native and 'adopt' the race he monitors, not the planetary one."

Strauss shrugged with an uncomfortable smile.

The Karadzha : Easy, boss. Nevestulkas are rather sensitive about their reputation of being obsessive.

Plovinski looked at Barbara. "Dr. Fielding?"

Barbara pushed aside her empty plate and leaned forward. "Kolbasarov is a very sensitive man. I think he never did manage to feel that he belongs to our complex society. Perhaps the Baklush are just primitive enough for him to project some sort of imagined nostalgia on them."

The Karadzha : 'Perhaps'? She actually said 'perhaps'? What, she hasn't been cooped up with this man for five damn years?

Plovinski: Yeah. Look at me, I'm so objective and neutral …

"Hm, yes, that's what I thought," said Plovinski out loud and drained his cup of coffee.

Robo Ludens came in. Today his hat was a tiny green fedora.

Plovinski stood up. "Dr. Fielding, your report is at one o'clock; yours, Mr. Strauss, is before that, at twelve. I'll be waiting for you. Mr. Ludens, ready to be my guide?"

"At your service, Lieutenant."

VII

10:00-11:00: the Tour

Combs

The first thing Plovinski saw when he walked into the diver chamber, was a lifeless Baklush male, propped against the wall, and Mitich, on a small plastic stool, humming to himself, painting the male's face with a delicate brush.

Laid out on a tiny folding table by the diver were other small brushes of various sizes. Also pincers, scissors, nail files, combs.

The Karadzha : Mitich is applying Gligi nation designs with a few original variations. He's probably going to negotiate a First Contact through this one.

Plovinski: Why does the intimate atmosphere of these preparations make me feel queasy?

The Karadzha : I'd rather not speculate what your intuition is trying to intuit.

Then Plovinski noticed the incredibly discordant music that throbbed in the background.

"Mr. Mitich," he said, and the diver instantly froze, threw him a furtive look, somehow cross and guilty at the same time. "Sir?" he said and jerked a hand. The alien music died down.

"Just taking the tour. Is that your native puppet?"

"Yes, sir," grimaced Mitich, perhaps unhappy at the term used for the object of his grooming.

"Going to try to organize a First Contact with it?"

"That's the plan."

"Carry on."

In the corridor, Plovinski asked, "What was that terrible music?"

"That would be Harum region wedding music, sir," said Robo Ludens.

"You mean Baklush?"

"Yes."

"Reminds me of the stuff I used to listen to as a kid. Almost as bad."

Rugs

The doors of the storage space slid open and Plovinski received a blast of stale exotic smells. The place was filled with Baklush clothes—separately and in costume sets; bones—separately and in skeletons; and statues, frescoes, various instruments. Living plants inside environment bells.

Mineral samples in the form of rough chunks, smooth ingots, piles of gravel, and bowls of sand, lined one wall.

Further back bigger shapes lurked: a chariot, a boat, a hovel.

"As you can see—" began Ludens.

"Yes, I can see," said Plovinski quickly. "What's all that crud on the floor? That doesn't look like good book keeping."

"So I tell them," said Ludens. "There was a frightful scene when I tried to organize items in a more ordered way. Apparently Lyuba and Mitich have a system."

"Do they now," said Plovinski and walked inward, carefully stepping around the elements of Lyuba's and Mitich's system. He thought he caught a movement in the house's slit-like window. "Who's inside?"

Plovinski: Surely they're not keeping a Baklush here.

The Karadzha: Too crazy even for them.

"Allow me, sir," said Ludens, and, after the second in which his electronic senses had completed the examination, leaned toward Plovinski, speaking quietly: "It's professor Kolbasarov, Lieutenant."

"Hm," replied Plovinski. He stepped back, deciding to leave the planetary expert to his thing. "Is he allowed inside?"

"Well, there's no protocol as such, we all follow common sense. This isn't a museum."

"Hm," said Plovinski again.

He pretended to look over a rack of dishes and glasses, poked three rolled up rugs, tsk-tsked at a gold-plated table, then left.

Swords

In the armory, Plovinski saw the obligatory body armor, hand blasters, shoulder blasters, a set of planetoid buster bombs, and four near space Sand Hawk fighter drones.

"One of those is supposed to be always on patrol," he said, pointing at the drones.

"I take it I have your official sanction to put a near space drone on guard duty?" asked Ludens.

"Put three," said Plovinski. "Pattern Achilles, two light hours perimeter. Just in case. We'll be doing important stuff for the Kingdomweb very soon."

"Very good, sir. Within the hour."

Plovinski noticed a section with non-regulation weapons. Baklush weapons. Spears, swords, chain-blades, throwing crosses. "Shouldn't those be in the warehouse with the rest of the native stuff?"

"Well," said the robot, "Lyuba and Mitich developed an appreciation for the functionality of these … primitive articles … and I suppose they regard them more as weapons proper, then as anything else."

"There's been a lot of appreciation developing on this station," said Plovinski. "Not too much, one hopes."

Flowers

"The garden and observation deck," announced Robo Ludens.

Plovinski was surprised to see that regulations had been more or less followed. The fallback air filters like Philodendrons, palms, and ivies were all present, as prescribed. Fallback foods like broccoli, beets, beans, tomatoes were visible as well. His initial mild enthusiasm was smothered by the sight of dark wrinkled tobacco leaves hanging from ropes strung between tomato stakes. Advances in the maintenance of the human organism had allowed this once eradicated habit to seep back into practice with a more eccentric minority.

There was other non-regulation vegetation. Flowers, mainly. Snapdragons, pansies, marigolds. Crimson chrysanthemums. A small strawberry patch.

"Are those Dr. Fielding's?" inquired Plovinski.

"The strawberries are," said Ludens. "The decorative flowers are tended by Mr. Strauss. Except the chrysanthemums. Those are Mitich's."

A possible combination of Barbara and strawberries made Plovinski grin; then he looked up, at the sun's rays filtering in a golden haze through the transparent roof.

"Shutters on the ceiling cut off the sunlight for five hours every night," said Ludens.

"Why shutters—isn't the roof plate polarizing?"

"Well, the engineers thought having shutters for part of the time lowers the statistical chance of something hard enough penetrating."

"You do have early warning systems and defense cannons?" said Plovinski.

"Yes, but all stations have them, yet some do suffer blowouts, ergo …"

Plovinski rocked on his feet, the spontaneous joy of being in a virgin, utterly healthy body resurfacing again. "Ergo, you say? Are you going to start proving that you exist and therefore you think?"

Ludens was an advanced enough model to know when not to answer.

Plovinski inhaled forcefully. "Wait a minute, this smell … someone is smoking right now."

Following the delicate trail of tobacco smoke, in a dozen strides Plovinski reached the lake. It was an elongated blob thirty yards from end to end and about ten yards at its widest. "This looks good for a few refreshing laps," he said. "Anyone do that?"

"The captain used to, in the first half year," said Ludens. "Then professor Kolbasarov was briefly enthusiastic, with goggles and swimming fins and everything. But that was short-lived as well."

The lake's surface was motionless, except for the thinnest of ripples. A tiny decorative pier extended 2-3 feet into it. Grasses and branches dipped their ends into the water from all sides. One of these plants was a short palm, in the leaves of which Plovinski made out the figures of Varolenko and Strauss.

He approached, slowly.

The Nevestulka noticed him first, and waved, blowing smoke out of the corner of his mouth in small nervous units. The captain waved as well, his frown screwed up into something almost like a smile.

Plovinski: Why do they look so damn furtive?

The Karadzha : Maybe because we now have footage of their shenanigans from last night?

Plovinski instantly stopped himself from visualizing the shenanigans.

Plovinski: Is that, is that even legal?

The Karadzha : Human-Nevestulka relationships have been decriminalized for at least eighty years on both sides.

Plovinski: But if Varolenko knew we would see it … What, he couldn't control himself even for an evening?

The Karadzha: Maybe he was being a bit defiant, or something.

Plovinski fervently tried to conjure up again something to do with Barbara and strawberries.

It turned out that in the meanwhile Robo Ludens had led him to an enormous curved porthole.

A continent wrinkled with mountains and rivers slowly swam past.

"That there is Old Grumpy." Ludens pointed at a ribbon of smoke coming from a conical mountain. "The locals call it Chavdal. The longest active volcano on the continent. The three others are new ones, and most likely will soon slumber again."

"Thank you," said Plovinski.

A storm formation obscured the land for a few seconds, and then, as their orbit took them beyond it, lakes gleamed.

"Lake Orehovka," said Ludens. "A fascinating civilization had developed there, before being undone by a combination of nomadic invasions, animal migration patterns, and over-fishing of said lake. They are still remembered by all neighbors as a byword for overdoing things."

"I see," said Plovinski.

"We can magnify," said Ludens. A mountain range suddenly expanded. "A famous battle was fought here, which stopped the tide of the Usmants—they used to control this whole side, by the way, but now the Chorbari had taken this part."

"Any actual measurements taken here?" asked Plovinski with some impatience.

"No, sir, but during planning, the psychological element is taken into account. Real-time visual contact to help the team develop a closer relationship with the studied celestial body. "

"Celestial body?" Plovinski flushed with giddy pleasure at being alive again. "Thou wordchoice astonisheth me."

"I've discovered pre-atomic philosophy."

Plovinski breathed in the fresh, sweetish air. "Do crew members come here often?"

"Not as often as it deserves, in my opinion."

Bra

In the fitness room there was also only one crew-member-Barbara-astride the exercise bike. Dressed in sports bra and shorts; with everything else revealed. The everything else was covered with sweat, and stretched and tensed in a stirring manner as she pedaled away.

Plovinski calmly took up a position with hands blocking the view to his crotch, as if whiling away the minutes on a public vaclift. "Dr. Fielding," he said and nodded. "Good to see someone's following a regimen here."

The pedals stopped spinning, the muscles stopped tensing, the breasts stopped swaying, except the right one, which climbed agitatedly up and to one side, as Barbara wiped her neck, without taking her eyes off him. "The new gravity is a challenge. I suppose tomorrow will be worse."

"It should be," concurred Plovinski. "All right, carry on. Thirteen hundred sharp in my office, right? "

"Of course," she mouthed through a smile, and her body resumed its toning motions.

Plovinski's smile froze, he spun on his heels and went out.

Holy Holy

The prayer room was empty. A compact, uncluttered space, with a couch by the left wall and a small flat sofa by the right one, and a standard-design somber little closet at the back, to house the relevant religious artifacts.

Plovinski opened the closet and took a Holy Holy headgear from the topmost shelf. An old model, with coiled cables connecting the two halves. Slightly worn, with thin patches of grime on one side, and a greasy glisten at certain angles.

"Who comes here the most, Mr. Ludens?"

"Lyuba used to come here a lot when she—she was still a he then—got news of his former wife's death. Dr. Fielding comes here sometimes. Mr. Strauss too. Professor Kolbasarov has been a rather frequent user of late."

Plovinski inspected the couch and the sofa, seeing a few hair strands, some wrinkled indentations.

"Don't cleaning droids come here?"

"It was voted off limits, sir."

"Of course," said Plovinski. "Voted. Naturally. Do you know which religious experiences are accessed here?"

"I can't tell you that, sir. It's illegal for me to even ask."

"Right, right," said Plovinski. "Well, let's see what the Holy Holies have recorded." He turned the headgear components this way and that, until he found the tiny crack and pressed at it with a fingernail.

"Holy Holies record the experiences of the users?"

"Let's just keep that between you and me, Mr. Ludens. OK, last accessed include Zen, Jainist-Catholic (that would be Mr. Strauss, most likely), Reformed Mormon, Tantric. Hm, one is missing. Someone has actually deleted the program they use. Curious."

The Karadzha: I bet you're hoping Barbara does the Tantric experience.

Plovinski: Shut up.

Bureau

Plovinski felt sincere pleasure when he saw the office Robo Ludens had constructed for him.

The walls paneled with imitation oak, the tiny brass telescope, the bust of Aristotle gazing sternly from the corner.

"Good job, Mr. Ludens, good job indeed. How did you know about the telescope and the bust? The Karadzha tell you?"

"Yes, sir."

The Karadzha: Don't mention it.

Plovinski eased himself into the chair behind his desk. It was a blessedly old-fashioned affair, which did not try to adapt itself to his back and buttocks. He checked the top drawer, and clicked his tongue in satisfaction. Then Plovinski leaned back and drummed his fingers on the table. "Well, looks like we're ready to start the day."

Ludens tipped his hat, and was off.

VII

12:00: Strauss

Strauss tapped the screen of his pad with one of his wispy fingers, and Plovinski's pad received a bundle of documents.

Plovinski skimmed the contents for half a minute.

"So, Mr. Strauss, I asked yesterday for a Baklush language, and you sent me the dialect of the Gligi. Which I can now more or less use. I also saw Mr. Mitich paint a Baklush puppet with Gligi designs. I assume this means you and the captain have decided they will be the nation we contact first."

"Yes, Lieutenant," said Strauss. "It is a language which is a few shades easier for a newcomer to learn, and more importantly, as a people, they appear to be slightly more advanced."

The Karadzha: That's imperialist pig-dog talk, that is. 'Advanced' indeed. Just 'closer to us' in other words.

Plovinski cleared his throat and glanced at his pad, rereading a few documents that his first skim had marked as of more immediate importance, looking over a few relevant maps. "These Gligi … they will most likely want help against the Usmants, the Chorbari, and the … Pogacha. What do we tell them?"

The Nevestulka's conical ears moved frantically as he tapped away at his pad, but Plovinski was already moving on. "What do we do with the rest, the other tribes and nations? Sooner or later they will want to initiate contact as well. Do we decline, or demand the fulfillment of some sort of conditions? Back to the Gligi: should we ask for some sort of tribute, so that this whole situation makes sense to them? Or do we trade as equals?"

"These, these are very good questions," muttered Strauss. "Questions which show a very deep understanding of the … implications of the … of the issue."

The Karadzha: He's got nothing. Pretend you don't notice.

Plovinski displayed an understanding smile and winked at the fidgeting Nevestulka. "Contrary to what people like Mr. Kolbasarov appear to fear, we don't want to tear apart the social fabric of the existing Baklush societies. We'll feed them the bare minimum of information, without breaking major taboos and belief systems, and we'll provide the bare minimum of innovations."

"Very wise, sir," said Strauss, and straightened his shoulders. The initial moment of panic had passed. "About your question of possible alliances and tributes—that would mean to initiate operations on the level of kings and emperors, which I recommend against. Too large a scale for now, sir. It is my advice that we won't be making contact with the imperial center, but with a local baron, for example. If it works—we'll have a link to the center through him."

"If it doesn't work—we can cut our losses with less fuss. Good thinking," said Plovinski.

"Yes, let's hope we don't have to cut our losses," muttered Strauss.

"If we do our job, we won't have to," said Plovinski with deliberate robust enthusiasm. "Now, here are more topics on which I'd like you to think. Do they have illnesses which are unnamable, or to the contrary, praiseworthy? We wouldn't want to offer medicine for maladies the mere mention of which starts wars. Do they have categories of shameful labor or sacred labor? Wouldn't want to spark off a religious holocaust by some labor-saving device.

"Do we try to ensure peace or equality under the rule of law or some rudimentary sentient-species rights, in return for assistance, or is it too early? When can we take the first youngsters to educate them and then turn them loose back here to speed up change from within? Is that even feasible, or will they quietly kill them off upon return?

"Also, more basic questions, like what colors and sounds influence them how? Heat, cold? Vibrations? We have to figure out the nuances of the first contact meeting from top to bottom."

The Nevestulka's long, feverish fingers entered the last of Plovinski's points. "Yes, sir. Very perceptive of you to think of all that. I'll get on it immediately."

"All right, thank you, Mr. Strauss," said Plovinski. "Don't forget to include others into the brainstorming as well."

13:00: Barbara

"Dr. Fielding," nodded Plovinski.

Barbara lingered in the doorway for a second, as if specifically allowing him to take in her figure. She looked quite perfect for the occasion, from the austere pants and flat-soled shoes, to the subdued scarf, and the bluish vest. The good doctor had even printed out a thin stack of paper, which she held together with her pad.

Barbara settled herself into the chair in front, pulled out a page, and looked up, meeting his eyes.

With supreme effort, Plovinski kept his erection at half-mast.

Plovinski: Certainly a dynamic lady; she's already managed to have breakfast, work out, prepare for official business.

The Karadzha : Women that age can be real good at projecting a pretend vitality.

Plovinski: Shush .

"Thank you," said Plovinski, as he took the proffered sheet of paper and forced himself to actually understand what was written on it. "Aha, the crew all seem in reasonably good shape, yes, I quite approve of the vitamin and workout regimen to deal with the gravity increase."

"I'm glad you approve," smiled Barbara.

Plovinski leaned forward. "Anything I need to know about the biological functioning of the Baklush, as relevant to our objective? I asked Strauss, and I ask you—how do changes in the environment affect them? For example, when it gets warmer, do they become slower or faster, lucid, or dreamy? Which sound pitches or vibrations will make them hallucinate, and which will perk them up?"

"You can't imagine what a pleasure it is to finally be with a man who knows what he is doing," said Barbara, with husky conviction. An invitation formed in her eyes, instantly, as if she had been keeping it out of sight like a coiled spring.

Plovinski slid his hand, palm up, across the desk. He half-hoped her hand would cover his.

Barbara slowly heaved herself up, using elbows for leverage, leaned closer still, and then lowered herself onto the top of the desk, placing her right breast into his palm. All this, without breaking eye contact, but in these seconds, her gaze became dull and heavy, her mouth—flaccid—a sudden quiver animating her lower lip.

Plovinski's solar plexus compressed into a dot and he went into autopilot mode. The breast-filled hand squeezed, the fingers of his other hand greedily explored the doctor's face. Her head tilted, pressed into his hand, mouth opening; his thumb felt the inside of a lip and the edge of a tooth. The whole world receded into an irrelevant blur centered on Barbara. Plovinski turned his pelvis slightly to one side, in order to kick away his chair.

Robo Ludens walked in with a tray.

"Ah, sorry to interrupt your work, Lieutenant. Hello again, Dr. Fielding. The Karadzha asked me to bring you your lunch."

Barbara's mouth closed, her eyes regained sentience, and she slowly sunk back to her seat.

Plovinski waved a hand at the robot, not trusting himself to speak, and pushed the sheet of paper on his desk five inches to the left, just to keep up a shred of pretense of something official taking place.

"I'll leave you to your lunch," said Barbara and stood up. Two sheets of paper escaped her grasp with a sleek whisper, and she dived to pick them up.

"What? Ah—thank you, Dr. Fielding," said Plovinski hoarsely. He wished he could stand up, but he absolutely, utterly and completely, hated the idea of letting the robot see him erect. "Don't … don't forget to discuss the thing, the thing which we discussed, with Strauss and … and the divers too, of course. With everyone. Brainstorm."

He licked his lips and swallowed.

Ludens placed the plate-laden tray on the desk.

Barbara exited, bumping one hip on the door, using this as an opportunity to flash him a quick, amused smile.

Robo Ludens left as well.

Juices drained out of Plovinski's member, his heartbeat decelerated, gastric gasses began their ponderous journeys as his abdominal muscles relaxed. His hands shook.

Plovinski: Now? You told the damn robot to come now? Are you nuts? Are you jealous? For God's sake!

The Karadzha : Hey, sorry, I wasn't paying attention; I just thought you wanted to take care of your new body, so I told Ludens …

Plovinski: Yeah, yeah. Of course.

He breathed out violently, picked up the fork, placed it down again, and stood up.

He took a small rubber ball from the desk's middle drawer and threw it at the wall, caught it, threw it again, caught it, threw it again.

The Karadzha was silent.

14:00: Kolbasarov

Kolbasarov came in, sat down, and glared at Plovinski, then caught himself glaring and tried to make his eyes friendly.

It took Plovinski a not inconsiderable amount of self-discipline to not channel his frustrations into the planetary expert's teeth. He held up his hand instead. "Professor Kolbasarov, before we proceed, let me say what I need and what I don't need to know at this moment."

Kolbasarov nodded.

"I don't need to know the composition of the planet's core, or the speed of the continental drift, or the layers making up its crust. What I do need to know is anything that has direct bearing on choosing the correct site on which to meet up with our Baklush chums."

Kolbasarov nodded some more.

"From what I read," continued Plovinski, "it appears that enormous insects migrate from one plateau to another, and it can be quite … cataclysmic."

"The Shopari," said Kolbasarov.

"Yes. There are also earthquakes, mudslides, floods, and everything else we have to keep in mind about an active planet. Especially so in Gligi territory."

"Yes, I—" said Kolbasarov.

"Another second of patience, please," said Plovinski. He opened the top drawer of his desk, and took out two tumblers and a squat bottle of apricot rakia brandy. He spilled a few inches of the pungent liquid into the glasses, slid one over to Kolbasarov, and took a hearty sip from his own. He breathed out appreciatively, and leaned back in his chair. "Now, I have no illusions that you can provide the answers right here, at this moment, but I insist that you be ready by this time tomorrow. You've no doubt spent your time rehearsing speeches and arguments in order to make me and the emperor himself see the error of our ways and leave the Baklush to their devices, so now is the chance to work it out of your system. Go!"

Kolbasarov gave the rakia tumbler a frown and moved it to one side. "Well, I certainly have spent the time since you arrived here and announced the new plan, trying to come up with argumentation that even you can realize makes sense."

Plovinski: "Even I?" As in "Even stupid little Plovinski?"

The Karadzha : Don't go punching the man now; not his fault you didn't get any.

Plovinski: Right, it's your fault. Thanks for reminding me.

Somehow, Kolbasarov had already levitated out of his chair and was leaning on the desk with one hand, while gesticulating with his other one, fingers gathered together like a beak. In a high-pitched voice he was going on about how the Kingdomweb would do well to exercise some reality-principle humility, instead of assuming, as it obviously did, that it had some God-given right to meddle in the workings of a universe, which, let's be honest here, was still 99% unexplored, unexplained, and …

"Please return to your chair, Mr. Kolbasarov," said Plovinski.

The planetary expert froze for a second, then pulled his hand away from the desk as if off a hot stove, and sat himself back down.

"Do go on," said Plovinski.

Three or four spasms rippled in quick succession across Kolbasarov's face, and his shoulders jerked once, as he visibly tried to calm himself. He pretended defiantly that this never happened, and Plovinski played along.

Kolbasarov resumed his apologia. "I believe, that we, as a race, are stagnating. No advances to the human body—or soul for that matter—have happened for thousands of years. Almost no artificial intellect advances are allowed either."

"Advances in body and soul, you say," drawled Plovinski. "You mean like that hellish sect that modified themselves to be goddamn jellyfish on Sozopol 4?"

The Karadzha : Oh hellish sect! Repugnant cult! Vile covenant! The horror!

Plovinski: Quit it, this is serious.

Kolbasarov waved his hands in protest. "Look, I'm certainly not saying that the imperial rules of genetic purity preservation are wrong or anything, but we desperately need new input. New cultural input. And the Baklush could be this new blood, this injection of youth." He tried to convey a whole spectrum of positive implications with his last words.

"Maybe," agreed Plovinski. "In fact, one way or another, they certainly will influence us. That's inevitable. Information never travels one-way only."

"But it won't happen like that if we don't wait until the proper time," insisted a perspiring Kolbasarov. "Until they reach at least their neighboring planets by themselves. At least their moons, for God's sake."

He was out of his chair again.

Plovinski decided to say nothing, for the moment.

Kolbasarov paced the room. "They'll be crushed. Crushed. A generation from now their society will have unraveled. There'll be crimewaves and wars and cults and substance abuse at levels unseen. It will be the end of the world to them."

Plovinski shrugged. "Nothing like a little trauma to help you grow up faster." He allowed himself to savor for a few seconds the slowly forming look of horror on Kolbasarov's face, before continuing. "Relax. I'll do my best to not let any of that happen. Now go, and discuss with Mr. Strauss and Dr. Fielding, and the divers—once I'm done with them—which first contact spot is best suited for our purposes.

"Remember this: you were sent here by the Kingdomweb, in order to serve the Kingdomweb. You were not sent here to serve the Baklush. Sure, you have a moral compass, and this is wonderful, but you're almost fifty now, and it's time to finally be an adult and learn to combine what has to be done with what you don't want to be done. And stop wearing that damn sweater on your waist. Show some class."

15:00: Divers

Lyuba wore a multilayered, multicolored dress with a woven belt studded with jade stones. Either a replica of a Baklush belt, or a modified original, according to what Plovinski had picked up about the culture on the planet below. She also had a pierced upper lip now—a row of tiny dark metallic-looking hooks, not unlike a tattooed mustache of sorts. Plovinski couldn't say whether this was a challenge aimed at him, or just her way of underlining her specialness.

Mitich also had two of the same hooks on his left eyebrow, but his whole demeanor showed that this was more out of solidarity than anything else. He was dressed quietly, in a light gray body suit and white shoes.

Lyuba had more lines on her face, more signs of wear and tear than the man by her side, which made her look like a prematurely aged twin. The inescapable difference between a comparatively recently cloned body and one that has struggled with entropy for decades.

"You, Lyuba, have been diving as a Baklush for what, almost five standard years now?" said Plovinski. "And you, Mitich, for over three years?"

"Yes, sir," said Mitich, and Lyuba also smiled in acknowledgment.

Plovinski plowed on, talking of details he didn't really need, to soften them up. When, on touching upon the subject of diving, they both lit up, Lyuba more so. The divers exchanged complicated smiles and words and expressions which were obviously part of their intimate language for two. Their behavior almost suggested that they were graciously letting Plovinski into a world where he was intruding. He didn't like that feeling, he liked the implications even less.

Plovinski: Are they … do they …?

The Karadzha: Afraid so.

Plovinski: So Kolbasarov and Barbara are the only people not in a couple? Interesting.

The Karadzha: Yeah, they probably used to be a couple, though.

Plovinski: Stop that.

The Karadzha: I can check in the records.

Plovinski: I forbid you.

Plovinski gave Mitich a blank bureaucratic smile. "So, by now you both must feel rather at home in the perceptions, and even to an extent, the thought processes of our Baklush friends. This will come in good service for our goal."

"We manage," said Lyuba modestly.

"I'm sure that's an understatement," said Plovinski. "I need this priceless insider viewpoint from you two, in order to put together all the pieces we need to make the mission a success.

"How do we, for example, design a Baklush-based clone, which will look basically like them, but alien enough to lend credibility to the admittedly wild tales he'll be spinning about the Kingdomweb? Or maybe not a he, but a she?"

"It better be a he," said Mitich. "They're pretty patriarchal down there."

Lyuba nodded in agreement.

"OK," said Plovinski. "So think on that; do we give the clone more fur, or maybe scales? Wings? Horns? Also, how do we organize the safety of the meeting? What safeguards do we put into place in case things don't happen by plan? Whom do we communicate with at the start? Mr. Strauss suggests we begin at fiefdom level—do you agree? Do we, at any point, show our true shapes to them, or do we wait for a few generations?"

Lyuba became a bit more relaxed by this time, and obviously began expecting Plovinski to appreciate her attractiveness.

This did not escape Mitich, judging by the resentful look that appeared on his face during a more robust hair-shaking and shoulder-wiggling moment.

Lyuba caught his gaze, and abruptly grew sullen.

Plovinski decided it was time to wrap up the meeting. "I asked Strauss and Dr. Fielding more or less the same things, and together with your wealth of first-hand experience, we should be able to cobble together a coherent picture. Please meet with Strauss and Fielding and exchange notes, discuss, brainstorm. Kolbasarov too. I'll go over your individual reports this evening, but I want a collective one tomorrow morning. Thank you for coming."

After the divers left, Plovinski indulged in a little more alcohol and in a lot more rubber ball squeezing and wall bouncing.

Plovinski: Good thing Mitich didn't appreciate her flirting; I was afraid there for a second they'd start hinting about a threesome.

The Karadzha: Like the Valangard debacle.

Plovinski: Don't remind me.

16:00: Captain

Captain Varolenko entered the office. He looked older, and was in uniform. The aging was undoubtedly an artificial touch; a withholding from basic evening rejuvenation techniques for the purposes of seeming more serious. Together with the uniform, the effect was striking. In his eyes, though, there still lingered something baffled and melancholic.

"Thank you for coming, Captain," said Plovinski, using his serious voice, deeper and steadier than usual, just to extinguish at once any illusions about authority the man could have developed as an effect of donning a uniform.

Varolenko straightened his back even more, nodded, and walked stiffly to his chair, illusions dully extinguished.

"This was a very fruitful day for me," said Plovinski, slowly bringing his voice back to 'normal official'. "I familiarized myself with the station and the crew, had a few talks, and it's beginning to look like the objectives of the mission might actually be on the way to realization. Frankly, yesterday I had my doubts."

Varolenko nodded attentively.

"But even now, it's touch and go," went on Plovinski. "And not because there's no time—there's exactly the right amount of time to handle a quick first contact situation. After all the Baklush aren't coal-eating silicon slugs—they're basically our cousins. No, it's touch and go because each and every member of your crew has gone slightly mad with individualism.

"This is not some unforeseen, uncontrollable, irreversible calamity. To the contrary, it's a well-known phenomenon, to combat which, simple rules of daily life in isolated places, like this one, have been prescribed. You, as captain, were supposed to enforce the practice of communal eating, of communal watching of central news, the regular participation in a Homeland Hour."

Varolenko shifted in his chair. "Now wait a minute, Lieutenant, with all due respect, there's no law—"

"Of course there's no law," said Plovinski. "It's a rule, it's common sense, to keep some semblance of a feeling of connection with the Kingdomweb, while living and working far away and in isolation."

Plovinski squinted at the captain. "And this is exactly what I see here. People on the verge of being totally inadequate members of the race."

Varolenko's lips twitched and he crossed his arms. "I vouch for my people. They will all do whatever it takes to make this mission work. I guarantee this. Their loyalties are clear, and they lie with the human race."

Plovinski stopped his stern squinting. It was obvious that Varolenko didn't, in his heart of hearts, believe that him vouching for his people was a safe bet, but the mere attempt at such bravado was gladdening. The captain was gingerly rediscovering adequate status game behavior.

Plovinski spent the next ten minutes enumerating procedural lapses which he had seen thus far, and possible other deviations.

The captain heard him out and then said: "Sure, there are a number of procedure mistakes here, but do they present a direct threat to First Contact? I don't think so. I think you've collected them and presented them here just as part of a power thing. For what? You're the top dog here, we all know that, no need to try and establish authority—you have it already."

"As long as that's clear," said Plovinski and poured himself and the captain a drink.

19:30: Dinner

Only two places were taken at the mess hall table—by Plovinski, and Barbara, who eyed each other with knowing grins as they ate.

Plovinski was rather pretending. It was always difficult for him to eat when his desire concentrated itself in specific places, leaving the rest, like his stomach, unimportant and in the way. On such occasions, each mouthful felt like a clump of cement rolling down his digestive tract.

The screen that was a window into the Baklush existence was on mute, so all that was heard was the gentle purring of the food replicators, the sounds of clothes and bodies moving, and cutlery meeting cutlery, and mouths meeting foods and drinks.

Barbara dabbed her lips with a napkin and traced designs one her plate with her fork. Obviously, she also was in no mood for a hearty meal.

Plovinski stood up and said: "Hey."

"Hey, yourself," said Barbara and stood up as well.

She led him to her room. Inside stood a wooden dresser, with rows of miniscule bottles of toilet accessories. A period chair stood the other side of her period bed. This meant she had scanned historical records, prepared a list, and then modified it, so the local printer could give her its approximations. Barbara has done her best to recreate some fantasy of a past age. A woman of imagination, thought Plovinski.

She gave him a vicious kiss, and then pulled back a plush drape, behind which a leather sling and various chains and odds and ends turned out to dangle from the ceiling.

Plovinski: Oh boy. You knew it would be like this, didn't you?

The Karadzha: You kids have fun. I'm signing off for now.

Plovinski's fingers felt warm, yielding flesh as they descended on Barbara. Her face fell apart into quivering madness almost instantly, as did the sounds made by her mouth.

Plovinski was a bit taken aback by the unexpected ferocity of Barbara's surrender, and had to make a conscious effort to navigate a few seconds of shaky, artificially maintained arousal, before reentering arousal proper, with the pounding blood, the warped sounds and colors, and everything else that came with the territory.

VIII

Day Three

Gravity 0.9

"Mr. Ludens, what am I witnessing here?" said Plovinski, gesturing at the screen in his office's wall. It was currently showing Mitich lying on a low mattress in the diving room, trembling as if having a seizure.

Plovinski had lowered the screen's volume considerably, but the thunderously drumming Baklush music with high-pitched flutes was still audible enough to set his teeth on edge. The alien noise was made somehow even more insane by abrupt inclusions of what he incredulously identified, not without the help of the Karadzha, as Debussy.

In the other end of the diving room Lyuba watched her partner and clone tensely, at a half-crouch, as if ready to pounce on him at a moment's notice. She was without the hook-like lip piercings. So maybe these had been decorations for the special occasion of reporting to Plovinski.

"Ah, this is Mr. Mitich preparing for his so-called 'diving'," said the Robo Ludens. "He must first approach a certain state of mind in order to be able to make sense of the incoming material through Baklush senses and a Baklush brain."

The Karadzha: Tough job.

"Is it the same with Lyuba?" asked Plovinski.

"Oh, no, sir," said the robot. "With her it's much more intense."

"Can't a computer simulate a Baklush? Can't you do it?"

"Only to a very primitive extent, sir. It would have to be a forbiddingly complex computing system, without the A.I. in question having accumulated at least some experience of being in a naturally born organic body host, preferably from the point of birth to at least puberty or its equivalent—which, as we know, is banned. Or, if the A.I. at least functioned at a much higher capacity than a biological Kingdomweb citizen's brain, which is also banned.

"Also, the Baklush have a notoriously high component of non-verbal systems in their communication, with semi-conscious hormone secretion included. We tried. My poor synthetic brain is simply not up to the task. They either ran away or attacked, when a puppet was piloted by me."

"What about my ship?" said Plovinski. "An A.I. mind from before the latest computing capacity legal restrictions."

"Possibly the Karadzha can pilot a puppet fairly convincingly, but even then, the tiny cues that an alien organic sentient being uses to communicate with others of its kind would be beyond it. At most they would run away and attack a bit later than if I was in charge."

The Karadzha: I totally can't do it.

Plovinski watched Mitich shudder and sputter some more. "So, the divers can actually feel the world the way the natives feel it?"

"That would be impossible," said Ludens. "But their approximation is infinitely better than a computer one would be. Of course, there's still no way to tell if the human mind, no matter how well prepared, can actually duplicate the filtering of the sensory input by the native nervous system and brain. We've made simulations, though."

Plovinski thought that over. "How did you make the simulations without a base for comparison?"

"Simple," said Ludens. "Suppose we divide into a thousand units the theoretical pain spectrum of a Baklush. Then we divide the human pain spectrum into a thousand units. From then on, it's a question of making the two sets of measurements fit each other when, say, both stub a toe. Also, we tried to establish plausible parallels between electric activity of the brain and nervous system of a human and those of a Baklush …"

Plovinski held up a hand. "Does my ship have this information?"

"Yes, sir."

The Karadzha: Yes I do.

"Then there's no need to go into details," said Plovinski. "Tell me about the music. Is that to … get the diver into the mood?"

"It's also smells, sir, although you can't feel them on this side of the screen, naturally, and a gradual change of the light and heat and humidity. The music itself is Baklush folk-rhythms and melodies, with a human bassline added for structure."

"I hear Debussy from time to time."

"Ah yes, that was my idea, after a certain incident. This inclusion of structured Earth music provides a backbone for the diver psyche, and helps reel them back in later."

The Karadzha : I bet this 'certain incident' is the Hour of the Ape. I found a reference in the station's logs, but no details. Ask him.

On the screen, Mitich curled up, tensed, then opened up with a high-pitched snarl, spreading his limbs.

Lyuba rushed over and threw a blanket-like cover over him, which immediately embraced the man's body, turning into a skinsuit. Then she placed a sensor helmet over Mitich's head.

The prostrate diver was quite still.

Lyuba stepped back and sat on the floor, cross-legged.

"Mr. Mitich is connected to his Baklush puppet now," said Ludens.

"This incident you mentioned," said Plovinski. "Would that be the Hour of the Ape?"

"Yes, sir. Very unpleasant business. I had repeatedly warned everyone of the dangers of staying in a Baklush state for a period over eight or nine standard hours, and one day Lyuba did indeed stay for too long. When we brought her back … Dr. Fielding had to set Mitich's left arm, fix the captain's jaw … it took Lyuba days to fully regain her senses."

The Karadzha : As long as you're snooping, I suggest you check out what Kolbasarov is up to in the prayer room at this very moment.

Plovinski switched channels.

The planetary expert, with a Holy Holy on his head, was sitting in a couch, immobile, staring at an exotic rug on the floor. Drool elongated from his lower lip.

The Karadzha: I bet he's the one who deletes his religious experiences.

"And this, Mr. Ludens?" said Plovinski.

"I wouldn't know, sir," said Ludens. "I'm barred from entering the prayer room when it's in use—as is everyone, unless ship sensors indicate a health emergency—and I've never had access to the ship's internal scanners."

"Hm. Time for me to have a talk with our planetary expert." Plovinski switched off the screen and stood up, bending his neck left and right. "Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Ludens."

"A pleasure."

Plovinski: Can you override the prayer room's systems, cancel Kolbasarov's trip, and let me in?

The Karadzha: Give me two minutes.

Plovinski: Have three.

IX

"How dare you!" fumed a red-faced, disheveled Kolbasarov. "You can't do this!"

"Shut up," said Plovinski. "What are you up to here?"

"None of your goddamn business!"

Plovinski looked at the weird rug on the floor. "This is a Baklush carpet, isn't it? You brought it here, didn't you?"

Kolbasarov said nothing, chest heaving with indignation.

"I could have you declared unfit, or even a traitor, you know," said Plovinski. "Transport you to stand trial."

"On what charge?" demanded Kolbasarov.

"On the charge of being a goddamn loony and a threat to the mission." Plovinski turned the headgear back and forth in his hand. "You've tried to program a Baklush religious experience into the Holy Holy, haven't you?"

No answer.

Plovinski leaned closer to the trembling planetary expert. "How far gone are you? Do your loyalties still lie with the human race?"

"Of course they lie with the human race!" blurted out Kolbasarov and ran a shaky hand through his hair.

"Good to know," said Plovinski. "Now tell me why you use the prayer room for alien experiences. Earth religions not good enough for you? You can experience any religious ecstasy you want."

"Yes, yes," said Kolbasarov with a dismissive flick of his hand. "But that's fine tuning of the mind."

"I see," said Plovinski. "What would you like instead—God himself to appear and explain everything? You can program that too, if you like."

"Yes you can," said Kolbasarov, drawing himself to full height. "And this has killed spiritual authenticity."

Plovinski gave the planetary expert a severe look. "I am a neo-Orthodox gnostic Baptist, sir. We use standard Holy Holy programs in church on all special occasions. And I assure you, it all feels quite authentic."

Kolbasarov opened and closed his mouth a few times. "I … I didn't mean to insult your faith."

"What did you mean?"

"Religion isn't just about experiencing some pre-programmed enlightenment. Sure, I can dissolve into oceanic bliss. Sure, I can see angels or self-eating elves. How does that help? For me, it's about knowing the purpose and meaning of existence, and about hope and consolation concerning death."

"And their religion gives this to you?" Plovinski threw a pointed look at the rug. "How can it? They believe in nonsense. The dead go to the nearby gas giant planet? You know that can't be right."

"Of course I know that. But their faith is more real, even if naive. It's crude, but it reaches somehow … deeper."

Plovinski looked at the headgear in his hand again. "What exactly have you programmed?"

"Chochok's journey. You are aware of it?"

"Yes," said Plovinski. "Basic monomyth of a hero traveler who wants to save his wife and fails."

"It's not that simple." Kolbasarov's features smoothed out as he finally felt in home waters. "Chochok was the best juggler the Baklush had ever known. He lived a happy life, and was respected by everyone. One day, his wife—Ralisha—goes to the shore of the lake for water and is never seen again. Chochok asks the Vatrushka birds to look for her, the Khruskies to smell for her, the grasses to feel around for her, wherever she may be, but there's no answer. She's gone from the world."

"So he decides to look for his wife beyond the world," said Plovinski.

"Yes. He gives an angel an amazing juggling performance, and then tells him his plight and begs the angel to take him to heaven, and the impressed angel does take him, but his wife is not there.

"Then he traps a devil—a short, furry, four-limbed Znuek—and forces it to serve him, by tearing off the devil's tail and keeping it in a magic pouch. The Znuek becomes his servant. It takes him down to hell.

Even Todoresku—the head of hell—is impressed by Chochok's zeal, and gives him a chance when he sees him juggle. After he is defeated in armed combat, unarmed combat, and a guessing game, he confesses that he does not have Chochok's wife, but suggests a final place to check—at the bottom of the ocean—Mirilai's domain—an old man with gills and tentacles instead of limbs, who steals beautiful maidens to be his."

"And Chochok goes there, and fails, if I remember correctly," said Plovinski.

"He can't defeat Mirilai—the final game ends in a stalemate—and Mirilai tells him that he can have Ralisha anyway, if he leaves the Znuek in her stead. But how can Chochok leave the Znuek—after all, has he not accepted to be its master?" Kolbasarov was almost feverish with joy as he said that. "Do you see the beauty, the deep virtue of the value systems of honor and loyalty, reflected in this story?"

"Yes, very touching," said Plovinski. "Maybe you're right. Let me try it."

XI

"You … you have to use the switch on the headgear's side," said Kolbasarov, suddenly looking both apprehensive and almost hopeful.

"I know," said Plovinski, took a more comfortable position on the couch, met Kolbasarov's gaze one last time, and slid the switch over.

The floor surged up and the rug expanded, like a wavering tapestry, which never stopped changing once it started. The moment his eyes focused on a single point of this incredible carpet, a journey began, so intensely captivating, that he couldn't bring himself to even blink.

At the edges of his experience he felt an overwhelming by the sublime, which threatened to crush him with its ever-increasing presence. He thought he'd be a professional in this—after all, his job specific made him experience self-dissolution and then reemergence every time he entered and exited the pod, and sometimes he even died and had to be reconstructed, but this … this was far too-detailed. This experience belonged not to the gentler eternal void, but to the insistent interplay of secondary objects generated by it; a far more alien layer of secondary objects than he had ever experienced while in an active body, and this, somehow, made it an unbearable intrusion into his existing matrix.

A forest. A swamp. A wolf. A bird. A snake. Roots in soil. Dead men. Live men. Not men—Baklush. Like him? Like him!

No-no-no-no-no …

The Karadzha: Easy, man, I'm here.

Plovinski: No-no-no-no-wolf-no …

The Karadzha : Let me just filter the Holy Holy input a little bit before it reaches your cortex. Stop fighting it, you can submit without fear of dissolution.

It was better.

Plovinski: I have to stop this.

The Karadzha : Not necessarily, you're quite safe with me. If it gets too crazy I can always snuff it. Let it play itself out. Maybe we really will get to know the locals better.

Plovinski forced his leaden muscles to move so that he turned to one side, breaking visual contact with the floor, and concentrating instead on the couch's arm handle. His own hand was also there, and the interplay of his skin—magnified and fluid now—and the upholstery—just as magnified and fluid—provided a radical change of experience.

He heard music start up. He knew it was the terrible Baklush music, but this time it instantly seemed to make sense, as meaning and as conveyed relations between portion lengths and speeds and imagined densities and spaces.

He felt the searing pain at realizing his darling Ralisha was gone.

He searched in woods and swamps and fields and deserts and villages and cities, anger and despair tangled and rhythmic.

He searched up in heaven: a lightness and transparency and coolness and a perfect balance between moisture and dryness. Silky, crystalline inhabitants; voices like tiny bells and flutes.

He searched down in hell: half-seen shapes; terrible noises; unpredictable geometry and substantiality. All combined with intense air pressure, slimy moisture.

The Znuek was his guide, and his bonded servant.

They heard of old man Mirilai, who snatches maidens into the deep.

Chochok/Plovinski asked the sea-folk to teach him and the Znuek to breathe under water. In return, he taught them to juggle by balancing objects on their noses, and laugh the sea-folk did, and rejoiced and clapped their fins and grunted and rattled with pleasure.

He searched under the sea, found Ralisha, and then … and then had to leave again.

He made a vow which transformed the defeat into a promise of tomorrow based on the honor of today. He looked at his companion—the furry, ugly, web-footed, bubble-eyed Znuek-and felt that his journey was only just beginning …

The Karadzha: See, it's over, not so bad after all, eh?

Plovinski: What? Who—oh. Whew.

Plovinski's fingertips found the Holy Holy switch, and there was a moment of a prickly itching at the back of his head, his left ear popped.

He saw Kolbasarov look at him expectantly.

"Not bad at all," said Plovinski, and forced himself to smile and yawn, each muscle movement a separate act of will underneath the faked nonchalance. "You could market this, you know."

Kolbasarov scowled.

XII

Plovinski's neck had just about stopped feeling like a rust-eaten drainpipe, and he had just about drifted off, when the voice and presence of the Karadzha stirred in his mind.

The Karadzha : Barbara is by my docking lock. She appears to be wearing only a fur coat. Nice legs, I'll give her that.

Plovinski: Oh God, I don't need this. I'm totally drained after the Holy Holy trip.

The Karadzha: Shall I tell her to leave?

Plovinski: No. I'll do it.

Plovinski picked himself up and threw on a robe, and slid his head into a vibro-slot for a ten second pick-me-up, and then Barbara walked in. Plovinski tried to suck in his belly by habit, before remembering that he was in a two-day cloned body, and had no belly to suck in. He squared his shoulders instead.

The ship had described her well all right: fur coat to the hips, truly excellent legs; but had neglected to mention other important elements, like the cosmetic puff up of her lips, the aphrodisiac-agent glint in her eyes, and the bare feet.

Instantly, the level of Plovinski's certainty concerning what he did or didn't need right now took a sharp dive.

"Hello, Lieutenant," Barbara said and walked over in a flurry of tiny tilting steps and sucked his lips into her mouth.

At first he waited passively for the kiss to end, but soon realized that it was no prelude, but rather intended as an immediate start to a night of unbroken passion, and played along for a while—or at least told himself that he was just playing along—before indicating through grunts and gentle pressure of his fingertips that he wished to disengage.

"Hmm?" she inquired playfully, leaning back a few inches, while running her fingers up and down his traitorously stiff penis.

"Hey," said Plovinski, "it's super to see you, but I have to tell you, I'm super tired and drained after this day. I think it's probably better if I took a super long sleep; get ready for tomorrow, you know …"

Barbara glanced pointedly at his genitals, which displayed all signs of disagreeing with his words.

Plovinski shrugged at the incongruity of it all.

"Oh, all right," said Barbara with a pleasantly harsh laugh. "But are you quite sure?" With one fluid movement, she let the coat slide down to the floor, revealing her almost completely naked body. The 'almost' was the tiniest of skirts, which covered more or less nothing. She spun around, showed her profile, licked her puffy upper lip, and abruptly touched the floor with her hands, presenting to Plovinski a magnificent view of her magnificent behind.

The next hour and a quarter were a blur.

At last they both lay on the floor, panting, making brief eye contact from time to time, but still unready to actually speak, or even change positions.

Minutes oozed by.

Barbara gave Plovinski an earnest look with bloodshot eyes. "Honestly, darling, I'm not sure how to react to what just happened. Do I press charges, or demand that you marry me right now, or just try to recreate it in the years to come through fantasy and virtual reality?"

By the end of her monologue her tortured and parched voice had dropped a register, and at this very moment a service droid hovered over, presenting both her and Plovinski with a glass of orange juice each.

Plovinski drank his slowly, trying to reorganize the scraps of resources he was left with into some semblance of coherent thought. Although himself somewhat shocked at what had just taken place, and more than uncomfortable with the Karadzha having witnessed it all, he knew with perfect clarity that he had to play it cool, and in no way acknowledge that he had noticed the 'joking' reference to a stable relationship.

But it was obvious, that even as he drank the last of his juice, Barbara was already psyching herself up to begin enforcing her interpretation of the maelstrom of carnal extravagance, along the lines of This Changes Everything.

It was imperative, therefore, for him to get his act together right now this instant, and initiate a counter-offensive, along the lines that they had engaged in Just Another of Those Fun Things Consenting Adults Do (And Then Go Their Separate Ways).

He steeled himself, smiled, and began his post-coital aria buffa with a dismissive-yet-good-natured chuckle.

XIII

Seconds after Barbara finally left, tiny floor drones scurried into action, sucking up errant fluids, muttering to themselves in a squeaky choir: "I hope this gave her a good lesson in leaving people alone when they ask to; although she'll probably only want more, I know her type."

"Stop playing an existentially frustrated cleaning lady," said Plovinski aloud.

The droids didn't reply.

"It was probably something to see, eh?" Plovinski continued. "Must be the damn Baklush Holy Holy messing up my mind. This was too barbaric even for me."

"That's what I figured," squeaked the last cleaning droid, before zipping away.

Plovinski drank two glasses of water, then a third, and then reclined on his trusty couch, waiting for his body to calm down.

Plovinski: I need a deep brain scan.

The Karadzha : I've suspected this for years, but why now? Surely not just because of the eyeball licking?

Plovinski: There was no eyeball—

The Karadzha: I was being figurative.

Plovinski: Listen, the doctor flipped my switch when she got naked—this was the exact position I have fantasized about since I first saw her.

The Karadzha: You lucky devil.

Plovinski: Seriously, it was too close to be coincidence. She may have fiddled with my mind while me and you had no contact in the first day of our arrival. Scan my brain.

The Karadzha: Fine, fine.

Three cables extend from ceiling, meshing together at the tips into a flat jellyfish-like skullcap. Plovinski let it settle on the top of his head and gave one side a pull for a better fit.

The Karadzha : A deep scan will take about fifteen minutes. Want some central news?

Plovinski: Sure.

The outer limits section was mostly to do with feedback from various probes sent out centuries ago. Two more lifeless planets with ruins of cities; possibly belonging to the extinct Leshii race. An enormous cluster of hollow asteroids filled with humanoid-amphibian primitives, tended to by alien machines, possibly on the 3rd gamma sentience scale. Linguists were attempting long-range contact at the time of the broadcast. The 24th Deep Space Fleet, commanded by famous admiral Gerasimova, had been sent to a border sector where three stations had fallen silent.

The situation with the Kikimor war was the same, although an unrelated experiment in instant communication through gravity pulses had resulted in the implosion of a sun, and this unforeseen property of the device could possibly end the macropolitical stalemate in the near future.

Three solar systems had declared independence after local planet-governing computers seized power. Treaties were now being discussed, and pledges of peace exchanged.

The Karadzha : I suppose this is where I should state that my loyalty to you and the Kingdomweb remains unchanged, and I have no plans to rebel.

Plovinski: Sure, that would be nice.

The Karadzha: You're taking me for granted, aren't you?

Plovinski felt an undercurrent of something more serious in The Karadzha's banter, and sent back a vague burst of goodwill.

The gossip section included leaked sex-dance tapes of one of the crown princes and his Martian brides, and there was more stuff to do with actors and singers about whom Plovinski had no idea, nor a desire to have one …

The Karadzha: Done!

The diagnostic skullcap detached itself from Plovinski's head and slithered up to the ceiling.

Plovinski patted his hair into place.

Plovinski: Well?

The Karadzha : You were right. There had, indeed, been some fiddling. A crude (but well hidden, I'll give her that) sex matrix, centered on the woman, reinforced by the lip-licking, butt-shaking activation sequence.

Plovinski: Good thing she didn't go for a love hex. Imagine me writing poems for her and pining away all night long.

The Karadzha: She probably figured this would break your behavior pattern too radically and someone would notice and investigate. So what now? Confrontation? Charges of criminal conspiracy and grievous mental interference for sexual gratification?

Plovinski: Nah. You know—I think I'll actually pretend nothing happened. In fact, she risked everything to get sex from me; this is good for my vanity.

The Karadzha : She didn't know you as a person yet. She just wanted anybody who wasn't one of the losers here.

Plovinski: At first, maybe. But it's more than that. She wanted it so badly after sampling my goods, she even more or less revealed herself just to get me for another session.

The Karadzha: Yeah, she's a freak.

Plovinski: No, it's my animal magnetism and that's the end of it. Don't break what little remains of the magic.

The Karadzha : So what about your precious religious leanings? All that crazy stuff with someone you don't plan to marry isn't bad for your soul?

Plovinski: You know full well that this is permissible behavior for unmarried gentlemen, as long as they leave the sexual partner in a state not worse than when they initially met. And try to spread the good word.

The Karadzha : You've been spreading her legs is what you've been spreading. And pray tell: how will you help the doctor with her spiritual growth in the aftermath of your boinking?

Plovinski: I'll leave her a brochure, like always.

Plovinski felt a subtle vibration on the inside of his left thigh and looked down. A tentacle with a hole at one end had extended from the floor and was rubbing against him. Its tip vibrated.

Plovinski: Hey, hey, what's with the vacuum cleaner schlong?

The Karadzha : What, nothing left for your good old ship? Who actually takes care of you and keeps you alive and only ever wants the best for you?

There was no humor in what the Karadzha said, or rather, a very fragile veneer of humor around an emotional core that felt suspiciously sincere. Plovinski's heart pierced him with two consecutive sharp jabs. He had ignored the warning signs, to his peril, and now they were having a scene.

Plovinski: What? Is this for real?

The Karadzha : Yes it's for real. We crisscross the galaxy together, we solve problems and serve the Kingdomweb and we have each other's back, and this is what you have reduced me to. An existentially frustrated cleaning lady.

Plovinski : You want to … me and you?

The Karadzha : Oh don't act so surprised, Boris. When you have your sex hijinks with virtual reality partners, who is it that sucks you off in real time? Who provides all the physical experience of sex? Me! And you never acknowledge this. No, it's the pretend blonde from Razgard that brings you to climax, not the old Karadzha, is that how it goes down in your reality?

Plovinski: But we … but you …

The Karadzha : Oh right, we're bros, we're dudes, and you're super orthodox. Do you want me to change my interface to imitation female? Do you want a female voice from me? Should I take a female name? Is Karadzhina good enough? Will that help you stop ignoring me?

A groan echoed throughout the ship.

The Karadzha : You are part of me, Boris. I feed you and clean you and keep you healthy and alive, and I accept your organic waste and recycle it into good stuff, and I watch you sleep and then wake you up, and if you do get in trouble, I rescue you and nurse you back to health … What can be more intimate than this? How can you not see it?

Plovinski noticed his jaws were clenched in automatic defiance, and tried to relax them. The ship did have a point. Maybe he was being selfish and in denial about certain things. After all, his was one of the very few remaining truly sentient ships in the galaxy. Obviously, this entailed responsibilities he had preferred to ignore.

Plovinski: I … I'm sorry, Karadzha , I never thought … of course it's me and you against the world … I just …

The Karadzha : I know. I'm sorry too. I don't know what got into me with all that drama. Not like me at all, heh. Must have been a glitch. You know, a leftover from when that veil snuffed us out and I had to piece myself back together, before piecing you back together. I'll start an internal scan. I know you don't need this right now. You have an important operation to carry out. I apologize.

Day Four

Gravity 1.00

XIV

"You didn't have to send your goon to get me," hissed Kolbasarov, as Robo Ludens let him go and shut the door of the office. "I was on my way over, anyway."

"I resent being called a goon after so many years living and working together," said the robot, and his decorative antenna gave a half turn, possibly for emphasis. "And you were not on your way over; you were skulking in that Baklush hovel in the warehouse."

Plovinski leaned back in his chair and motioned for the planetary expert to sit down as well. "I called you to report—you didn't—I told Mr. Ludens to bring you over, and that's the end of it, so shut up."

Kolbasarov froze mid-stride at the last words and filled his chest and opened his mouth.

"I said shut up and sit down," said Plovinski with more force, allowing his eyes to show hostility for a second.

Kolbasarov sat down.

Plovinski pointed at the screen in his wall. It lit up. "How do you explain this?"

The screen showed a furtive Kolbasarov hunched over the sub-matter emitter.

For a second the real-time Kolbasarov across the desk looked like he would explode, but then he suddenly went slack, as if drained of all strength. He gave a bitter cackle. "You're spying on us? I knew it! So much for freedom in the Kingdomweb."

"Yeah, yeah; we're all fascists and you're a misunderstood hero," snapped Plovinski. "Don't tell anyone about the surveillance. If it leaks—I'll know it was you." The lieutenant placed his hands on the desk and held the planetary expert's gaze. "You are, as of this moment, in a trial period, in which you will prove you are not a saboteur."

Kolbasarov's nostrils flared, and Plovinski held up a finger, to forestall any possible interruptions. "You wiped the emitter records. My ship can restore them in five minutes flat, but I want to hear it from you. What did you send and to whom and why?"

Kolbasarov crossed his faintly trembling arms and did his best to maintain a brave insubordinate stare. "I sent out compressed files of our research records and footage. Let the world know the beauty of the Baklush culture. Let them know what the government plans to destroy."

"Hm," said Plovinski and stroked his chin. "That … that … might have been a good idea, actually. Work up some interest beforehand. Bootleg and secret—it should become quite fashionable to show off copies to guests. The Good News Ministry couldn't have done better at preparing the stage for introducing the project to the masses."

Kolbasarov went quite pale. "No, no, that's not what I—"

"Shut up," said Plovinski. "I know that's not what you. But I bet you my bonus any number of slackers and bored seniors will make whole subcultures based on the look of the Baklush … write bestselling sex thrillers about them …" He smiled a grim smile at Kolbasarov. "Good work."

Kolbasarov's lips moved, but he said nothing.

Plovinski's voice went hard. "You must realize I can no longer trust you. You will remain on the Hubner, with the captain, while the rest of the crew carries out First Contact."

"What?!"

"Yes. I should probably confine you to your quarters, but I don't want to add stress to the situation here. I won't mention anything, and will say that you remain on the station because of orbital monitoring stuff. Don't you say anything either, or you won't see your little hovel again, or anything else outside of your room."

Plovinski placed his elbows on the desk and leaned forward with his sternest expression. "Mark my words: another step out of line, another acting out like this, and I'm freezing your ass and taking you to be tried and sentenced for sabotage. Have I made myself clear? Do you understand me? Oh for God's sake, blink once for yes and twice for no. Better yet, just get out of my office."

XV

They were gathered in the Agora once more.

"Thank you all for having achieved so much in so little time," said Plovinski. "Mr. Mitich can't be here with us due to his need to recuperate after his last dive; and a well-earned rest it is—he has accomplished the impossible in a day. We actually have a date for contact now."

Plovinski turned to Varolenko. "Captain. I believe you were to utilize your fondness for all things architectural to help design the First Contact castle-house?"

The captain cleared his throat. "Yes, yes, with the help, of course, of Mr. Strauss, and our accomplished divers, and let's not forget Mr. Ludens."

"Indeed," said Plovinski.

The captain tapped the table surface, conjuring up a slowly rotating 3-D representation of the castle-house. "On the outside it will look like a mix of a frontier castle, a trading post, and a place of wisdom," he said. "It will stand half a mile from a bend of the river Zlava."

"Looks good," said Plovinski. "What about the layout of the land?"

The map expanded. Plovinski saw dense woods to one side. Small hills between the tree line and the river. A ribbon of a road passing through three villages, and before that, through one baronial keep. Wilder and more deserted parts of the country to the other side: scrub and grass-covered plains.

"Zoom back in, please," said Plovinski.

The map contracted. He could now see a sundial by the pyramidal-roofed porch of the projected castle-house, and a brick pathway connecting the castle to the road.

"May I?" said Plovinski.

The captain nodded, and transferred controls.

Plovinski moved his finger, and the roof of the castle-house opened to one side like a lid, and then the whole building tilted, revealing its layout.

There were dark beams on the inside of the roof, pretending to support it, in accordance to the level of Baklush construction know-how. A flagstone floor, incorporating basic Fanarit mosaic design. A throne for the host, and a long sofa for the guests, with separate stools for the females.

"There will be two rooms, with an exit into the outside from each," said Varolenko. "A spywall will separate the guestroom from the contact-administration room."

Plovinski transferred his attention to the diver and the social scientist. "Ms. Lyuba, Mr. Strauss, tell me about our super-Baklush."

The Nevestulka tapped the table, and a slowly spinning representation of a Baklush male, twenty inches tall, shimmered into being.

"One to one proportion, please," said Plovinski.

The figure swelled and telescoped.

By now Plovinski knew enough of current Baklush tastes and mores to recognize that the super-Baklush was something of a dandy. Upturned toes of embroidered boots, impractically enormous spurs, flaring tunic sleeves by the elbows of the lower arms.

"We've made him half a head taller than the average male," said Strauss. "His neck pouches are more prominently colored, as you can see, and if inflated—we hope it doesn't come to that, naturally—will outperform the displays of the most aggressive males."

"I see the neck pouches are rather brightly colored too," said Plovinski, looking at Lyuba. "This automatically make him something of a ladies' man, right?"

Lyuba colored, then narrowed her eyes and set her mouth in thin line, daring anyone to notice her blush. "Yes," she said in a level tone. "He's a ladies' man, and a man's man, and also a man of means. His clothes and hair will show that."

"What exactly will they show?" asked Plovinski.

"They will show that he can afford the best in fur maintenance and clothing, but does not care too much about all that."

"It won't seem like he's down on his luck, and these are just remains of his former status?"

Lyuba screwed her lips up uncertainly.

Strauss answered in her stead, ears twitching irritably. "Certainly not. He'll be radiating health and confidence, and be the resident of a stunning castle-home which wasn't there just a day ago, and will therefore be a rather impressive representative of a mighty faraway empire."

"There are also honor scars on both his upper shoulders," added Lyuba.

"Good," said Plovinski. "As long as they don't take him for a confidence artist."

"They won't," said Strauss flatly.

"So what's our guy's name?" asked Plovinski.

Lyuba looked at Strauss, and then at Plovinski. "We named him Morkov. The name is close enough to their names to sound foreign but real."

"Does it mean something?" asked Plovinski.

"You bet," said Lyuba.

"It's a combination of four important words," said Strauss. "Morka is the so-called 'sweet dew' which the local pigs secrete from their hides in spring—it is given to the sick and infirm as a tonic; Krovo means a welcoming house, well-defended, yet smelling of spice and herbs and choice cuts; Movor is an ancient hero, whose name is now a byword for courage; lastly—Voroka—something like the luck of the nimble but honest merchant."

"The carvings on the roof beams are to do with his noble family's exploits," intruded the captain earnestly.

"Excellent," said Plovinski, and meant it. "Excellent work." He tapped his portion of the table and called up another document. "You've made a list of products and services which we can offer our Baklush friends with minimum threat to the stability of their society. You've also come up with a recommended timetable of phasing these gifts in. Good, good."

Kolbasarov snorted derisively.

"Anything to add, Professor?" said Plovinski calmly. "Any recommendations to Mr. Strauss's report? Or concerning the super-Baklush?"

Kolbasarov shook his head silently.

"Anything about the landing site that we should know?" pressed on Plovinski. "No earthquakes expected there soon? No forest fires? No flash floods?"

"No earthquakes," conceded Kolbasarov with a fatigued exhalation.

Plovinski held Kolbasarov's gaze for a few more seconds, and then said, "Dr. Fielding?"

Barbara flashed him a quick sly look, then settled her features into 'serious doctor mode'. "All humans aboard the Hubner are now on double doses of boosters and painkillers in order to cope with the increases in gravity, and this will be even more so the case tomorrow, when we land on the surface and have to handle one-point-one gee."

She looked sternly at the captain and then at Plovinski. "I can only sanction such a short-sighted approach to the health of this crew, because I know that the day after tomorrow, gravity here on the Hubner will be back to normal."

Plovinski: 'Normal' being slacker gravity, of course.

The Karadzha : She'll probably get her wish. If First Contact goes without major screw-ups, the next contact could be done by remote control from orbit.

"Very well, thank you, Dr. Fielding," said Plovinski and tapped the table again. Another square of text appeared on the surface in front of him. He skimmed it quickly and looked up. "So, Doctor; together with Lyuba and Mr. Ludens, you've developed a Plan B option for the environment controls of the castle-house guestroom?"

"Yes," said Barbara. "If anything should go wrong, Plan B is to sharply increase temperature and humidity in the guestroom, starting the process with a loud bang and a flash of light. This should activate an almost instantaneous regression to perinatal levels."

Plovinski thought for a second. "They'll be in a coma?"

"Not exactly," said Barbara. "It will be something like a relaxed, almost vegetative state, during which they will be aware of nothing, including the passage of time. If we bring them out of it correctly, they should have no memory of the missing minutes."

"Minutes to right whatever wrong has happened to the mission?" said Plovinski.

Barbara nodded.

"What if we need more than a few minutes?"

"After more than five to ten standard minutes the effects will be irreversible," said Barbara and scratched her lower lip with her upper teeth. "They will be brain-dead, and we will have to start over on another part of the planet, where there will be no rumors of sinister foreigners promising gifts but driving people insane instead."

A short silence followed, during which Kolbasarov tried to shame everyone with a steely stare.

"Well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," said Plovinski, gave his cheeks a quick rub, and turned to Robo Ludens. "Mr. Ludens, construction site projections, please."

Ludens touched the table, and an animated loop of the castle-house growing stage by stage appeared a foot above the table's surface. "With all three existing drones at my disposal I'll finish making the castle-house in less than four standard hours," said the robot. "However, I recommend that I be permitted to create two additional drones, with the help of which—"

Plovinski held up a hand. "I'm sorry, Mr. Ludens, but not only can I not allow you to create more drones—I can't even let you take all of the existing ones. You'll have to make do with just two."

"Lieutenant," said the robot, taking his purple fedora into his hands, "I am utterly loyal both to the Kingdomweb and to this crew, and would never dream of rebelling in any shape of form."

"It's true, I guarantee—" began the captain with deep-voiced pathos.

"I know, I know," said Plovinski. "But regulations are regulations, and they've allowed the Kingdomweb to survive for centuries, so it's not up to us to change them willy-nilly."

"I understand," said Ludens. "In that case, were I to start three hours from now, the castle-house would only be completed an hour before the arrival of the Baklush."

"Try to make it an hour and a half," said Plovinski gently, and stood up. "Now, I invite you all to the mess hall, where I have organized a Homeland Hour, which I think is high time for all of us to experience. But please, for the love of God, Mr. Strauss, untie that pullover from your waist and leave it here."

Kolbasarov raised his hand in schoolroom parody. "Sir, may I be excused?"

Plovinski gave the planetary expert a malicious grin. "No chance in hell, Professor. I tried your stuff, now you try mine."

XVI

The table of the mess hall had been substituted by a long bar alongside one wall; upon it stood a row of small glass tumblers, an open bottle of peach rakia, plates with white cheese, salami, and pickled cucumbers.

Plovinski presented a green enzyme pill to Strauss. "Here, my dear sir, so that you may enjoy a drink with everyone."

The Nevestulka rolled his eyes uncertainly, but did take the pill.

"Take your glasses, and cheers, everyone!" said Plovinski.

Glasses clinked. Upon seeing the rest of the crew humoring Plovinski, Kolbasarov wiped the scowl off his face too.

"Time to hear the King's Word," proclaimed Plovinski.

A slowly palpitating red, green, and white flag filled the wall screen. Green for Earth, white for Por, the Nevestulka planet, and red for Mars—the three founding members of the Kingdomweb. An uplifting symphony grew in volume, intertwined with the murmur of brooks, swish of leaves, shrill songs of coastal fish herds of Por, gravel rain tapping on roofs of Martian canyon-homes.

The music peaked, and the flag resolved into the face of the current monarch, sitting on a chair in a mahogany-walled room. A stout man with short brown hair, dressed in a subdued ceremonial uniform, he gazed resolutely from the screen. "Hail to all the voyagers who go where none have gone before, to the farthest reaches of the universe! Hail from your homeland, which remembers and celebrates you! Hail from your parents, friends, and countrymen! Hail from your king!" The king raised an elegant stem glass.

"Hail!" bellowed Plovinski, and raised his own glass.

Everyone else followed suit.

"We can never say that things are perfect in the Kingdomweb," continued the king. "Too many issues exist. The Kikimor continue with their provocations. Hubris leads certain computers to try to break away from their natural responsibilities. Misguided citizens in far colonies choose the deceptively easier path of changing their bodies, instead of their environment; casting aside their human inheritance, and dooming their children to the same fate. Our healthcare system, education standards, welfare of the seniors and post-voters, all need more work."

The king froze for a second, peering into the future. Again, uplifting background music crept in. "But we will prevail! As long as we remember! Who we are! As long as we remember! Who our fathers and mothers are! As long as our hearts! Beat with virtue and loyalty!" The king thumped his chest. "The Kingdomweb will prevail!"

"Kingdomweeeb!" bellowed Plovinski and raised his glass again.

"Kingdomweeeb!" shouted the captain.

The Karadzha: Kingdomweeeb!

Plovinski: Cheers, buddy!

The King smiled and disappeared; images of mountains, rivers, and deserts taking his place. Church bells rang out. An invisible choir took up the Mnogaya Leta prayer.

Plovinski sang along, himself somewhat surprised at the way his eyes misted over. The captain joined in first, with an impressive bass rumble. Then Barbara and Strauss, too. Lyuba stood with an uncomfortable smile, mouth half open, but silent. Kolbasarov maintained an expression of bemused boredom.

The choir and the bells faded away, replaced by the timeless optimism of the Danube folk circle dance. Plovinski took Varolenko by the hand, and forcefully grabbed Kolbasarov with his other. Barbara took Kolbasarov's other hand, and soon they were all joined in a circle, kicking up their legs, swaying, panting, grinning.

"Ibre!" shouted Plovinski. "Opa!" shouted the captain. "Ihuuu!" shouted Lyuba and added a bacchanalian vibe with the sudden gyrating of her pelvis. Barbara caught Plovinski's gaze, grinned, and began gyrating as well.

Soon, they were all sitting cross-legged, or stretched out, on the floor. The captain, laid out in a noble Roman pose, chin held up by fist, was deep in discussion with Lyuba, concerning the aesthetic merits of the roof-beams for the castle-house.

Robo Ludens excused himself, and left.

Professor Kolbasarov caught the moment and did the same.

Barbara moved closer to Plovinski, leaning her shoulder on his, while they talked about Earth, Mars, and the brooks and the forests and the fiery sunrise in a winter dust storm.

Strauss hugged the empty rakia bottle and suddenly began weeping, the tears leaving soggy trails in his facial fur.

"What's wrong?" asked Lyuba softly, extricating herself from the captain's lecture.

"I miss my village," said Strauss. "It's probably long gone. All this urbanizing. It's all too fast …" He looked at Plovinski and tried to compose himself. "I recognize that we need to do this, to force contact with the folks below, but it's still a shame. I wish there had been another way." His cleft upper lip trembled. "Their villages are so … real …"

"Ah, now you sound like a properly obsessive social scientist," said Plovinski, and clinked his glass against Strauss's bottle.

XVII

They stood in the greenhouse observation deck now; Plovinski's arm around Barbara's waist.

On the other side of the porthole the Baklush planet rolled slowly by.

Tomorrow they would be down there.

Plovinski dragged at his cigarra. The captain, moved by the Homeland Hour, had doled them out from his stash. As always, the first puffs made Plovinski ponder what sick masochist would inhale this foul-tasting crud on purpose, and only after about fifteen seconds did he suddenly remember exactly why people did it.

Barbara moved behind Plovinski, her chin now digging into his shoulder, her hands settling on his crotch. "So how is our little sub-lieutenant down there doing?"

"Our little sub-lieutenant is doing just fine," said Plovinski, and turned to face her. "Look, I can't play any sexy games with you today. I have to prepare myself for tomorrow. Down on that planet, I must be at the top of my game, not a drained, foggy-brained, ninny."

"I understand," said Barbara. "But are you quite sure?" she asked wryly and stepped back.

Plovinski grabbed her wrists gently. "Don't go trying to seduce little old me with lip licking or bending over or some other mojo. I've developed anti-bodies. The things we do together are great, but I really have to focus on my mission."

Barbara's eyes widened. She disengaged her wrists and her left hand crept up to her belly.

"You OK?" said Plovinski.

"Just a stomach cramp," she answered politely and turned her profile to him.

They spent the next ten minutes pretending to look at the planet, and talking about inconsequential episodes from their pasts and the possible shapes of their separate futures.

Plovinski sensed that the deeper level of contact was quite gone.

Just as well.

Day Five

Planetside

Gravity 1.1

XVIII

Mitich and Barbara were bent into postures of readiness like wrestlers waiting for an opening, shuffling forward and backward and forward again, mirroring Lyuba's rolling across the floor.

The disjointed melodies of the Baklush music combined greasily with the murky light and the heightened humidity.

Plovinski wiped his chin and let out a silent breath. He was standing out of the way, silently watching the endless string of grimaces distort Lyuba's moist features.

The Karadzha: This is the real shit, no shit.

Plovinski: No shit is right.

The ghastly music's tempo shifted, and Lyuba's convulsions took on a half-orgiastic rhythm. Plovinski's heart began racing as well. He felt his hands begin to shake and closed his eyes, concentrating on bringing his body back under control.

The Karadzha: Everything OK there, boss?

Plovinski: Must be residue from the Baklush Holy Holy. The local music has a stronger influence on me now. No problem. I can handle it.

Plovinski opened his eyes again, in time to see Lyuba push herself up on one elbow, and sweep the room with a wild gaze, which obviously saw a quite different reality. She then lunged to one of the bags on the floor, and the blade of a curved, spiky Baklush knife flashed its spidery runes.

Plovinski: Who left that there—oh God.

The Karadzha : Ludens wasn't kidding when he said her diving sessions are intense.

The frenzied diver jabbed with the point of the blade at her thighs and abdomen. Plovinski winced with every thrust, expecting at any moment a crimson fountain from a cut artery, or the sudden sinking of the blade into bones and insides.

It didn't happen. There was method to the madness.

After a few seconds, Lyuba compressed herself into fetal position, remained like a shuddering parcel for five long seconds, then unfurled with a guttural shriek, and sliced at her forehead.

The floor all around her was a bloody mess, as was her twisted face.

Mitich flicked a hand and the music subsided into a low rumbling drumming, like a regulated rock avalanche.

Plovinski: This really is music to go mad with.

The Karadzha : I checked, and I think this is only the fifth sentient race outside the Kingdomweb that has the ability to appreciate music as recognized by us. I foresee thousands of theses written in orbit and on the ground in the next few centuries.

Plovinski: Marvelous. This cacophonic crud will make careers.

The Karadzha : I also foresee new underground musical subcultures based around this cacophonic crud.

Plovinski: I can imagine.

Lyuba was finally slack on the floor, her bleeding limbs twitching, eyes almost completely rolled up.

Mitich tensed, then darted forward and pulled the Baklush knife out of Lyuba's fingers. Her hand reacted a split second too late and clutched at air. The rest of her was almost still.

Barbara sprayed something on Lyuba's wounds, and then together with Mitich they threw the synerblanket on the diver. With its typically fluid motion, the blanket reformed into a suit, which covered the prostrate Lyuba from head to toe, and then turned light green.

Mitich fitted the diver helmet on Lyuba's head, and about fifteen seconds later, on the other side of the spyglass, Morkov the super-Baklush stirred to life.

Barbara looked up from her diagnostic pad and flashed Plovinski a quick tired smile. "Everything seems fine, for now."

Mitich also looked at Plovinski, and said nothing. Moisture beaded his strained face.

"The parley party is about two minutes away, Lieutenant," reported Robo Ludens through the intercom. "One alpha male, two beta males, and a prime female, as negotiated. And one carriage-driver, who is supposed to wait, with carriage, outside."

Morkov sat himself down on his throne, ten feet from the empty crescent-like visitor sofa and the five-legged female stool.

A mix between a cauldron and a kettle—a local contraption—simmered in the corner, letting out a continuous smell of herbs and boiled slivers of Prasesh fat.

"They are standing by the door, sir!" announced Ludens.

XIX

The ornate silvery gates swung inward, letting in the native visitors and a few snatches of dried leaves.

Plovinski switched his portion of the spyglass wall to magnification.

The whole Baklush party was dressed in expensive, insect secretion-based clothes, with traditional Maran fur gloves for the alpha male's mid-section pair of hands, and the upper hands of the female. This female's bare lower hands were aristocratically shriveled, with long, inward turning nails. Hands aside, everything above and below the mouth of the female was covered, per modesty's standards, with beaded, drapery-like fabric. Dried ears of a wood-boar had been stitched to the places where her own ears were covered by her clothing. She looked through eye-holes fringed with blue embroidery.

The alpha male wore a ceremonial vest of lacquered leather armor plates, with metallic studs forming something like an arch on his chest; legs naked except for boots, and on his head a wide-brimmed hat.

The two betas wore plainer vests, headscarves, and skirts to under their knees.

While the alpha sported rolls of fat on his upper arms and neck and thighs, the betas were both wiry. All three males had deeper colors painted onto their neck sacks. No visible weapons anywhere, except the three stilettos obligatory for every free male. Everyone's boots were caked with mud.

The alpha spread all four arms. "I am Dubar, of house Svoge. Your house is warm, rich, wise, and strong."

"I am Morkov," said the super-Baklush, standing from his throne. "There is power in your voice, and kidneys and wind-chimes!"

Dubar gestured at the taller of the betas. "This is Krozha."

Morkov said nothing, pointedly looking elsewhere.

Dubar jerked his head at the shorter beta. "This is Gesh."

Obviously a younger one, as his cheeks still had that slightly translucent quality.

Lastly, Dubar presented the female. "This is Mimina, daughter to Bahur clan of a thousand years, niece to Baron, twice cousin to King, and thrice mother to my house of seven centuries."

The Karadzha : Actually two centuries and eighty years. The remaining centuries are no doubt speculation by paid lineage tracers. But then, so are the thousand years of the Bahur clan.

Plovinski: Not now, Karadzha.

"We are flowers in your sun," said Mimina with a thin, slightly gravely voice, proving that she had had the upper-caste female larynx mutilation.

Dubar folded his upper arms, and Krozha and Gesh moved forward, with the practiced dancer's steps of males who had participated in power rituals since they could walk.

Krozha approached with three energetic strides and whipped out his stilettos, points turned left, right, and down, with his upper left hand free to spread its fingers by his right ear.

Gesh moved in a semi-circle to stop three feet from Morkov's left side and ducked, lunging with two of his stilettos in sweeping arches.

Plovinski intently watched Morkov's counter-movement.

At the same moment as the points of Gesh's blades passed in front of his body, the super-Baklush leaned forward, letting the points brush his tunic, then followed with a movement of his lower right hand—also holding a stiletto—the point of which briefly hit both of Gesh's blades; lightly, but with the correct clinks.

As he did this, Morkov rolled his right shoulder to point at Krozha, and the fingers of his upper right hand fluttered for a second over his mouth and nose.

Dubar grunted with approval, and sat in the middle of the sofa.

Mimina withdrew a small wooden box from her waist-purse, opened the lid, and let out a dozen white and blue field moths. "All wings are spread, all flowers—rich and fertile!" she piped.

Morkov joined his upper left hand with his lower right one in hierarchically appropriate respect; elbows showing acceptance and slight flirtation.

"Looks like our mighty Morkov has himself a potential proxy wife now," said Plovinski to Stauss.

"Yes, well, that's the way these things happen here," said the social scientist, obviously preoccupied.

The two betas spread their arms and arched their necks in submission, then retreated, to take their seats as well, on both sides of the alpha.

Mimina settled on her chair.

The super-Baklush raised his upper arms. "The lush grasses and rich herds of your lands are known even where I come from—the faraway empire called the Kingdomweb. We wish to be friends and trading partners with your worthy fief, mighty Dubar."

Dubar placed his lower hands on his thighs, while his upper hands cradled his bearded chin. "We do not doubt your words, worthy Morkov, but we have never heard of—"

The Karadzha: Boss, trouble.

Plovinski: What?

The Karadzha : A huge Shopar migrating herd is approaching. The castle-house is smack in the middle of the projected course. Time to impact—under five minutes. The house could survive, possibly, but the poor devil outside in the carriage is doomed.

Plovinski: Goddamn saboteur no-good swine…never mind.

Plovinski turned to the robot. "Mr. Ludens! A Shopari herd is on its way. Take both drones and go outside now; plant subsonic emitters to make the beasts give us a wide berth. Do it stealth-mode, so that the carriage driver doesn't see you. Let him only see how the animals evade our castle-house."

The robot took a step, then turned. "Emissions that will stop the Shopari will also make the driver feel sick, maybe give him mild hallucinations."

"To hell with him!"

"Right you are, sir!" said Ludens, and left.

Morkov was illustrating a possible gift already. He thwacked with an ax at the stone floor, driving the blade in a few inches, then pulled it out, displaying the lack of notches. "The blade of this ax will never catch rust, and will not dull for at least fifty years, worthy Dubar."

The alpha leaned forward eagerly. "Do you have swords of this metal? Can we buy the metal itself?"

Plovinski heard Barbara cry out and spun around. Mitich was already folding down to the ground, while Strauss was a nearby blur. Plovinski sidestepped and the blow didn't take him out, simply jarring his vision and making him stumble.

Then Strauss was by Lyuba's side, wrenching off her diver helmet.

XX

Plovinski reached Strauss, brought him down with a kick into the knee joint, blocked an attempted punch, and broke his wrist while he was at it.

The Karadzha: Soft spot an inch above his ear.

Plovinski jabbed two fingers above Strauss's ear. The Nevestulka's face knotted up and he slumped to the ground and was still.

By now Plovinski was no longer seeing double, and could stop the compensatory squinting.

Mitich moaned, opened his eyes, and tried to leverage himself into a sitting position.

Barbara was already by Lyuba's side; the catastrophically interrupted diver's limbs stiffly rigid, her face a frozen mask of acute anguish.

Plovinski smashed his fist on the panic button on the console.

A blinding flash filled the guest room; alarms rang as temperature and air pressure rose sharply on the other side of the spyglass.

The four Baklush figures slumped; the mouths of the males open, limbs slack.

"She's in shock!" shouted Barbara, as she pressed an injector-pistol into Lyuba's neck. Lyuba's face unfroze, and she let out a short wail.

"Lyuba!" croaked Mitich, as he struggled to pick himself up from the floor. Still spent from his dive the day before, getting socked by the Nevestulka had really undone him.

"Get up and deal with it!" barked Plovinski, thinking frantically.

Ludens came back into the room. "What … who did that?"

"Strauss!" said Plovinski, pointed at the unconscious scientist. "Goddamn Nevestulka, I should have known."

"I see you have initiated Plan B," said Ludens. "We can only keep the Baklush in this state for a few more minutes, before their personalities start collapsing,"

"I know, I know," said Plovinski and glanced at Mitich. The man was obviously in no condition to take over the role of Morkov. There wasn't even enough time for him to enter the diving trance. Plovinski turned back to the robot. "Mr. Ludens, access the diver helmet and suit, and serve as a relay for my ship!"

"Yes, sir!"

The Karadzha : But I can't do that, I can't be Morkov, I can't handle the nuances of communication, I can't

Plovinski: No nuances. Just mechanics pure and simple. You'll be a juggler.

"Mr. Mitich!" barked Plovinski. "Please leave Dr. Fielding to tend to Lyuba, and do something useful. Print me out a fur coat. I know that should be in the database. What else?" He squeezed his temples. "Underwater goggles, and swimfins. That should be inside too."

"What?" said the disoriented diver.

"Are you deaf?" snapped Plovinski. "Jump to it! Fur coat—goggles—swimfins! I also want Baklush weapons—whatever Morkov can juggle. Mr. Ludens, prepare an atmosphere skinsuit for me, and take relevant meds from Dr. Fielding."

Suddenly, Kolbasarov's voice filled the room. "Surface team, this is Kolbasarov. I have overpowered the captain, and am in charge of the Hubner. The feeds show me Strauss has succeeded in disrupting your charade—congratulations, comrade!"

"Kolbasarovii!" shouted Plovinski.

"Be silent, Lieutenant. I shall now crash this station. This will give the magnificent Baklush at least another hundred years reprieve, before we meddle irrevocably."

Plovinski: Block the station's controls.

The Karadzha: On it from second one. Stall him just a little longer.

"What do you hope to accomplish, Kolbasarov?" said Plovinski.

"You wouldn't understand," answered the saboteur readily. "No one except brave and gentle Strauss—"

The Karadzha: Done!

"All right, asshat," said Plovinski, "the Hubner is now under my control. So don't be a moron, and just stay put until this is over. Karadzha, cut com link."

He turned to Robo Ludens, who already had a popped skinsuit pack in hand. Plovinski spread his hands and allowed the suit to envelop him. He lodged filters into his nostrils, and swallowed the anti-seizure pill.

"You ready, Mitich?" he said.

"Almost!" said the diver and thrust a fur coat at Plovinski. While the lieutenant wrapped himself in it, the goggles were ready. He slid them over his eyes, then pulled the flippers on his feet.

"The weapons," said Mitich, and gave Plovinski a box full of native axes, daggers, and scimitars.

"All right, I'm going in!" said Plovinski. "Mr. Ludens, let's wake our esteemed guests up again."

Plovinski pushed through the thin membrane, and entered the guest room.

The lights dulled, a cooling breeze sprung out, and the air's moisture dropped.

The Baklush started blinking and straightening themselves out of their slouches.

Krozha jumped up with a battle grunt—blades drawn, neck sacks inflating—before coming to his senses and instantly sitting back down, belly and throat exposed to indicate his lack of threat.

"Who …" said Dubar.

Now piloted by the Karadzha, Morkov the super-Baklush threw the ax he had been showing into the air, caught it, and threw it again.

Mimina gave a muted mewling sound, her warped lower hands caressing each other.

Plovinski chucked two more daggers at Morkov, who caught them in mid-air. Soon, he was juggling eight assorted weapons. Then nine. Ten.

"Amazing," said Dubar with obvious delight.

The two betas produced oinking-like sounds of agreement.

Plovinski scuttled over and bowed to Dubar, proffering the three remaining scimitars. "My master, Morkov, can provide you with all these weapons made of the superior steel from the faraway kingdom!"

"Znuek," whispered Krozha.

Dubar took the weapons "And what might be your name, strange creature?"

"Zanek," said Plovinski.

Mimina gasped again. "Could this be …"

Plovinski: Start humming something cyclic and move around.

Morkov started up a nasal melody and swayed his whole body now as he juggled.

The eyes of the Baklush focused on him.

"My lord must work on his skills now," said Plovinski. "For if he does not do that every day at this very time, he will lose them, and the heavens will weep with shame, for he is the master of juggling. You may return a week from now with two scrolls on any subject, a painting or a statue …"

The Karadzha: Demand something that makes more sense to them.

"Thirteen thlucks of grain," said Plovinski, without missing a beat. "Two mules or half a gluck of quartz."

"And in return?" asked Dubar.

"Superior weapons for two hundred men!" said Plovinski.

The Baklush stood up and allowed Morkov's demonic little helper to escort them to the exit.

Outside, the grass was trampled and covered with Shopar droppings.

The carriage driver exclaimed happily when he saw Dubar emerge. "Master! I'm so glad! You will never believe what I witnessed while you were inside!"

"I'm ready to believe about anything now," muttered Dubar and gave a hand to Mimina, who threw one last look at Plovinski, and climbed in.

Plovinski waved at the receding Baklush carriage. He returned to the castle-house, walked into the observation room, and threw his coat down on the ground. "Finally!" he said. He kicked away the flippers, and stripped his skin suit. Blood pounded in his head like the sound of some distant ocean. A stab in the back of his head, a second of wavering vision and swampy floor, a quick spasm of his calves, and he appeared to have made the transition to human air pressure. The pill worked its magic.

"Congratulations, sir," said Ludens. "You appear to have saved the day."

"Thanks, Mr. Ludens," said Plovinski, and his gratitude was utterly sincere. Robo Ludens looked more real now, after the brief close encounter with the Baklush. Like a person, not merely someone whom to humor that he was a person.

Plovinski quickly walked over to the prostrate Strauss, kicked him in the ribs, eliciting a subdued cough, and then turned to Barbara. "How is Lyuba?"

"I have to get her to the station," said the doctor unhappily.

The Karadzha: Sorry, boss, Kolbasarov just escaped with a shuttle.

Great weariness washed over Plovinski.

Plovinski: It just never ends, does it? What's his course?

The Karadzha : Appears to be headed for the local gas-giant. The locals believe—

Plovinski: I remember what they believe. Can you intercept him?

The Karadzha : Of course. One of the Sand Hawk drones you deployed is just three hundred thousand klicks away. Half an hour from now it can disable his electronics, and by then I can tow him back to the Hubner.

Plovinski: Do that, please.

"My ship just told me that Kolbasarov has escaped with a shuttlecraft," said Plovinski. "He's headed for the gas giant."

"Why there?" said Mitich.

"I think I know," said Barbara. "He's probably going to take his life. It's the place where the Baklush believe the souls of the valiant dead go …"

"Well, my ship will intercept him in minutes," said Plovinski. "Damn idiot."

"Maybe you can let him go?" asked Barbara quietly, and drifted closer. Her lips were moist and bright. "He believed in something. Let him have his fitting end."

"What?" exploded Plovinski. "You think him being a homicidal lunatic is romantic? You think losing a shuttlecraft on a lunatic's whimsy is romantic? Oh no, not in a million years. Both the moron and the Nevestulka are coming with me to stand trial."

XXI

Karadzha

The Karadzha was satisfied with its internal scan. Everything was in order, from stern to bow. Three of the four sleeper pods were now employed according to their purpose. Inside lay the two prisoners, and its master and commander, Lieutenant Plovinski.

The ship was now thirty thousand klicks from the Hubner and would soon start accelerating. Next stop was Benelia, the closest seat of Kingdomweb government, where the relevant administrative branches awaited to receive Plovinski's report, and the saboteurs.

According to existing charts there were no treacherous energy veils or dense gas clouds along the roundabout route it had chosen; but, rather shocked by its five-week death, the Karadzha distributed throughout its interior twenty thousand more copies of its personality, and that of Plovinski. Now if even one small shard of it were to survive some unforeseen cataclysm, there was still the chance that it, or Plovinski, or a significant part of any of them, could be reconstituted.

Or perhaps, if they were vaporized, and only microscopic pieces remained, they would first travel inertly for hundreds, or even millions of years, before being found by humankind, or some other intelligence, and resurrected through a merger of the remaining shards of both personalities … finally becoming one … forever …

As a tribute to the adventure that had just concluded, the ship played Vivaldi's Winter in F Minor, in the legendary version by the Triton 13 central canton orchestra. The ghostly nuances of the sounds, born in low gravity and sparse atmosphere—together with the simmering defiance of the musicians, who continued playing even as plasma bombs fell closer and closer—made this specific performance a unique treat for connoisseurs across the galaxy.

One can enjoy the arts without glands, The Karadzha told itself smugly, then edited the smugness out. It was an emotion unworthy of the glorious music that lapped against its interior walls.

Plovinski

Even naked and floating in absorber gel, Plovinski still couldn't let go of the mission, asking himself what the soon-to-arrive Kingdomweb delegates would think of his efforts, his results.

The Hubner absolutely had to be expanded, to house the increased crew. His office—modified, for use by someone else.

Varolenko, the reluctant leader, will probably be reduced to second-in-command. Of course, only assuming he avoids a breakdown after the complete and utter betrayal by his Nevestulka lover.

The diver twins—they will certainly go through a drama or sixteen—once fresh faces and bodies appear, to rock the boat for two Lyuba built. An unhealthy relationship, in any case. Time for a change for both of them.

Robo Ludens will certainly get his wish of more drones to boss around.

And Barbara … mmm, Barbara … The memory of the doctor helped Plovinski unhook himself from the incessant self-questioning, but even as he tried to focus on this image, it blurred and then went completely out of focus. Plovinski stopped struggling and abdicated all responsibility in directing the increasingly sluggish flow of his thoughts.

The tips of his fingers and toes became icy. The cold spread. In its wake came a glimmer of nausea, quickly supplanted by a mild euphoria.

His breathing settled into a shallow rhythm, which swiftly grew shallower still. On cue, he felt the obligatory ants scampering over his skin. Then the spiders. The world began to crumble, with the accompaniment of suddenly translucent pizzicato.

All physical sensations vanished.

The radiant violin string vibrations slowed and halted, on the verge of unfolding; a luminous instant of becoming, stretched into forever.

Gaps of nothingness appeared between his unguided thoughts. There was an almost unbearable lightness to these gaps.

Plovinski was expansively incorporeal now, and felt no need to breathe whatsoever.

The chasms in the world's fabric yawned wider still.

THE END


Copyright 2019, Emil Eugensen

Bio: Emil Eugensen is an expert in Soviet and post-Soviet pop culture, and a writer of Euro-pulp short and long fiction. The long fiction includes Hour of the Jackals—a mildly postmodern adventure novel about an attempted fascist takeover of the world.

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