Juggler and Znuek
by Emil Eugensen
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
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
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
"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.
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
"I am backup twenty three and we were dead for a bit less than five weeks
"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."
"Your body was pretty far gone. Without a full-grown new body you can't do
"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
"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
"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
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.
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
"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
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
"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."
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
"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:
"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
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.
Plovinski: You think they missed uploading the transmitter on purpose?
Karadzha: Not enough data. We have to see what the situation is.
Plovinski: What do you think of this Robo character?
: 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?
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."
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
"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
"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
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.
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
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."
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
"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.
"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?"
"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
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?
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
"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."
: Twenty seconds have passed since your awakening. Are you all right?
Plovinski: Yeah. Still fuzzy at the edges.
Karadzha: The feeds show a full and adequate persofile graft.
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 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
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.
Karadzha: Well, that was rather embarrassing.
Plovinski: I can never get used to this. This crazy rush. But
this…this was a new low.
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.
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
"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
"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.
"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
"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
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?"
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
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
"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
"Good night, Captain."
"Good night," replied Varolenko warily, without allowing any enthusiasm to
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,
"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
: 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.
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
Karadzha: Eighteen months, man.
Plovinski ran a hand over his pillow and grinned.
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 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.
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
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."
: 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.
: 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
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
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.
"Sometimes there's just a millimeter off somewhere; ruins the experience
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
"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
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.
"Mr. Ludens was tasked with making one," said the social scientist. "I'll
"Very kind of you."
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
"What?" said Kolbasarov with a start, incredulous eyes bulging. "No. No
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.
: 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."
: '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."
10:00-11:00: the Tour
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
Laid out on a tiny folding table by the diver were other small brushes of
various sizes. Also pincers, scissors, nail files, combs.
: Mitich is applying Gligi nation designs with a few original
variations. He's probably going to negotiate a First Contact through
Plovinski: Why does the intimate atmosphere of these preparations make
me feel queasy?
Karadzha : I'd rather not speculate what your intuition is trying to intuit.
Then Plovinski noticed the incredibly discordant music that throbbed in the
"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."
In the corridor, Plovinski asked, "What was that terrible music?"
"That would be Harum region wedding music, sir," said Robo Ludens.
"You mean Baklush?"
"Reminds me of the stuff I used to listen to as a kid. Almost as bad."
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.
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
"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.
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
"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."
"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
"Shutters on the ceiling cut off the sunlight for five hours every night,"
"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
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?
: Maybe because we now have footage of their shenanigans from last
Plovinski instantly stopped himself from visualizing the shenanigans.
Plovinski: Is that, is that even legal?
: 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?
Karadzha: Maybe he was being a bit defiant, or something.
Plovinski fervently tried to conjure up again something to do with Barbara
It turned out that in the meanwhile Robo Ludens had led him to an enormous
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
"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
"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
"Not as often as it deserves, in my opinion."
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
Plovinski's smile froze, he spun on his heels and went out.
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
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
"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
"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."
Karadzha: I bet you're hoping Barbara does the Tantric experience.
Plovinski: Shut up.
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?"
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.
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."
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."
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,"
"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
"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
"All right, thank you, Mr. Strauss," said Plovinski. "Don't forget to
include others into the brainstorming as well."
"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.
Karadzha : Women that age can be real good at projecting a pretend vitality.
"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
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
"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!
: 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
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.
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."
"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 …
"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
"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
Plovinski: "Even I?" As in "Even stupid little Plovinski?"
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
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
"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
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."
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 …?
Karadzha: Afraid so.
Plovinski: So Kolbasarov and Barbara are the only people not in a
Karadzha: Yeah, they probably used to be a couple, though.
Plovinski: Stop that.
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
"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
"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.
Karadzha: Like the Valangard debacle.
Plovinski: Don't remind me.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
"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
"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
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."
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?"
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."
: 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
"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."
: 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
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
"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."
Plovinski: Can you override the prayer room's systems, cancel
Kolbasarov's trip, and let me in?
Karadzha: Give me two minutes.
Plovinski: Have three.
"How dare you!" fumed a red-faced, disheveled Kolbasarov. "You can't do
"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?"
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
"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
"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
"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."
"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!
Karadzha: Easy, man, I'm here.
Plovinski: No-no-no-no-wolf-no …
: 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
It was better.
Plovinski: I have to stop this.
: 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
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
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
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
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."
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.
: 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"That's what I figured," squeaked the last cleaning droid, before zipping
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.
: I've suspected this for years, but why now? Surely not just because
of the eyeball licking?
Plovinski: There was no eyeball—
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.
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.
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.
: A deep scan will take about fifteen minutes. Want some central news?
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
: 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.
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 diagnostic skullcap detached itself from Plovinski's head and slithered
up to the ceiling.
Plovinski patted his hair into place.
: 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.
: 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.
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.
: 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
: 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?
: 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
Plovinski: What? Is this for real?
: 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
: You want to … me and you?
: 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 …
: 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.
: 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,
, I never thought … of course it's me and you against the world
… I just …
: 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.
"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,
"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
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."
"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."
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
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
"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
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,
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
"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
"No earthquakes," conceded Kolbasarov with a fatigued exhalation.
Plovinski held Kolbasarov's gaze for a few more seconds, and then said,
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
Plovinski: 'Normal' being slacker gravity, of course.
: 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
"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
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."
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
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
"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.
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
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
"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.
They stood in the greenhouse observation deck now; Plovinski's arm around
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
"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
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
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.
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.
Karadzha: This is the real shit, no shit.
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.
Karadzha: Everything OK there, boss?
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.
: 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.
: 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.
: I also foresee new underground musical subcultures based around this
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
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
"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
"They are standing by the door, sir!" announced Ludens.
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
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
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
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."
: 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,
"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
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
"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—"
Karadzha: Boss, trouble.
: 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
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
Then Strauss was by Lyuba's side, wrenching off her diver helmet.
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.
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
Mitich moaned, opened his eyes, and tried to leverage himself into a
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
"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
"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!"
: 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
"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
"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
Plovinski: Block the station's controls.
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—"
"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
The Baklush started blinking and straightening themselves out of their
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
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
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 …"
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
"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
"I have to get her to the station," said the doctor unhappily.
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?
Karadzha : Appears to be headed for the local gas-giant. The locals believe—
Plovinski: I remember what they believe. Can you intercept him?
: 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
"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
"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."
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.
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
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
The chasms in the world's fabric yawned wider still.
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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