by Bill Hafoc Rogers
©2009 Bill Hafoc Rogers
A chime sounded in the dim compartment. The lights came up. Nothing else happened.
The chime sounded again. Nothing.
The compartment door hissed open. In stepped a lovely lady cat, in a costume out of a harem fantasy. I know youre awake, she said. Dont make me turn off the gravity in there.
The heap of covers stirred. A paw-hand, with long, fluffy, darker-than-chocolate fur and some very sharp retractable claws, reached out from beneath the covers, groping blindly across the bed. It found a pillow, snagged it, and hurled it at the feline dancer. The pillow passed right through her without troubling her in the slightest.
Get up, Spaatz.
Uurrr Escee, will you please shut up and go away? I was having such a lovely nap.
Youd sleep your life away if I let you. Cmon. Get up.
The lady cat wavered and became a huge mouse. A toy mouse, knit from pale blue yarn. Its tail was braided string, its nose was pink felt. It did a little dance and winked at himno mean feat, when its eyes were black buttons. The scent of catnip filled the air. Get up. Race you to the gym. I bet you cant catch me!
Thats not funny, Escee.
Yes, it is! I cross-referenced against 17,862 joke books, psychological studies, and humor vids to be sure.
You dont have that many in your library.
I hyperlinked to Central; dont say I never did anything for you. Or maybe Im lying. But you wont find out which unless you get out of bed. Come on, its time for you to exercise. Regulations.
Accept priority override
No. The flight surgeon put a priority override on you. Get up unless you want the rest of the crew to see you arguing with a big catnip mouse?
Spaatz crawled out of bed. He pulled on a Slikstra fur-repellent flight suit and followed the mouse. She had no trouble keeping in front of him. After all, no matter how solid she might look, Escee wasnt actually moving.
The odds of anybody seeing him chasing a toy mouse through the Triplanetary Hyperions passageways was slim. At this hour, Captain Benson and Apprentice Pilot Robineau would be on the bridge; Second Pilot Chase would be blessedly asleep, free from any harassment by a self-important ships computer; the drive section crew and Chief Engineer had their own quarters aft, and hardly ever came forward, as was traditional. But if somebody did see, the humiliation would kill him. He just had to get that mouse out of sight as quickly as he could.
What made it all the more galling was that Escee knew this, and shed counted on it. SC-1198s werent supposed to be that bright, not out of the fab plant anyway. But their minds tended to grow as they gathered experience, and Escee had been out here a long time. She could still play dumb when it suited her, but none of her crew would fall for that any moreleast of all Master Pilot Carl Spaatz!
A double-high, double-wide door hissed open, and the gym confronted him in all its glory of naked gray steel. Escee dissolved into a fuzzy, glowing sphere. Of all her manifestations, this was Spaatzs favorite. He preferred it because he found it less annoying than the others.
The usual? she asked.
He really wanted a hunting gamesomething he could sink his teeth into, so to speak. But Captain Benson was a cute fuzzy bunny. She was a good skipper (for a rodent), but she still objected to blood sports, even as mere simulations in the gym. Species sensitivity, his fuzzy butt! When was somebody going to show a little sensitivity to his species?
Shed seen to it the gym was programmed to provide him any number of pleasant, scenic walks. He could walk through a forest, or walk up a rocky slope, or walk through a city, or walk walk walk. For a bit of variety, he could saunter or jog. Maybe he could even stroll.
The air would be scented with flowers, but he didnt particularly care for those scents. The flowers would be brightly-colored, but his eyes were meant for night vision; his color vision was limited, and colors faked up by combinations of red, green, and blue pixels looked less realistic to him than monochrome. Compared to a walk in a synthetic park designed to please Captain Bensons more human-design eyes, the usual was almost bearable. At least it offered some challenge and a chance to enjoy his own agility.
Yes. The usual. Go ahead, he growled.
The gym dissolved. A blue sky formed overhead, a blue sea and a light-colored beach appeared. He heard hissing and a few thumps as one of the compartments in the gyms floor opened, and then a surfboard lifted to the surface of the waterless sea. Tronk music, the theme song of the game Surf Surf Revelation, began to blare. The simulation of a synthesized version of an ersatz electronic drumbeat was enough to rattle his teeth.
Escee. Escee! Volume down!
Volume down, acknowledged. Difficulty level?
He hopped up on the board. Held in place only by artificial gravity fields, it could bob and turn turtle and slip aside just like the real thing, but hed been stuck playing this stupid game long enough that he hardly noticed. Nine plus. Throw in some big ones too, at random. Go.
He knelt on his board and began to paddle out to sea. It was all simulated, but except for the fact that your paws didnt get wet as you paddled you could almost forget that.
You had to learn how to read the horizon. The big waves showed up first as the tiniest break in that line. You had toah, there it was!
He paddled faster. This was going to be a good one! Now, turn, paddle hard, balance a bit forward. There!
He felt the board tilt, and he was riding the rising monster toward shore. What a rush! The wave steepenedshould have asked Escee what density the water had and what the gravity was, before she started the sim. This wave seemed steeper than Earth normal, hed have toWhoa, nearly got pitched there. Concentrate! He cut back across the wave face. This wave was too high, Escee had set the water density too low no doubt, but it looked likeYes! The lip of the wave curled over, he was going to shoot the tube and just then the balance shifted the back end of the board slewed and the wave pitched him, just pitched him, breaking overhead, throwing him under. He was spinning, tumbling in the midst of the churning water. Or thats what it looked like, but of course it was all bent gravity and bent light, there was no actual
Spaatz yowled! He shook his head to rid himself of as much of the water as possible. His fur stood up, all the way to the tip of his tail, puffing out the flight suit as if it were a balloon. Escee! No water! How many times do I have to tell youno water!
Im sorry, Master Pilot. Its part of the program
and I told you to cancel the water! You hunk of junk, why cant you do what I tell you to? Did you forget? Do we need to replace your oh, gods. He breathed hard, shook his head, sopped some of the water from his fur with his sleeve. The Slikstra fabric soaked the foul stuff away as if it had never been there. Sorry. Sorry, girl. Im sorry I screamed at you. Look, no water, okay? Dont cry, but I really, really, dont like water.
Im sorry, Spaatz. And I dont cry. I cant.
But he could hear the hurt in her voice. His heart sank; he almost sort of liked Escee, although of course he was too self-sufficient to need any friends. She was nice, though; there were times she hardly annoyed him at all. Its all right, girl. Its all right. Just please dont forget again, or at least dont hit me with water when Im exercising before my watch, all right? When Im not awake yet, its just too much to bear.
No problem, Master Pilot.
All right. Lets go again. By the way, whats the water density?
One-point-oh. Fresh water, with gravity at the default one gee. Fresh water makes the waves steeper. Do you want me to add some salt to it?
No, no, its more of a challenge this way. Lets try it again. Only no splash in the face if I fall off. And Escee?
Yes, Master Pilot?
He closed his eyes, shook his head, and took a deep breath. The catnip mouse was kind of funny.
Apology accepted. Simulation restarting, and dont be so clumsy this time.
He stuck his tongue out at the floating, glowing ball. Then he began paddling out to sea.
Solomon Geosynch Approach, yall got the Triplanetary Hyperion runnin a mite heavy here, corridor charlie-three. Our delta vectors three-point-oh, an everthins jus copacetic. How ya read?
Reading you five by five, Hyperion. Please state spacecraft type and primary cargo.
Roger that, Approach. Hyperions a Blohm und Voss CL-6 re-conn-fig-your-able genrl-purpose cargo liner with a bulk cargo of bee-bees an twelve passengers.
Wuff! Iron pellets! You werent kidding when you said you were running heavy. Execute three-minute turn to corridor charlie-five, reduce delta-V to one-point-zero. Your dock is S-4, south end of the station. Would you like tugboat assistance?
Tugboats? Hail no, boy! CL-6s a grand old bird, this aint nothin we caint handle. Roger copy our approach charlie-five, delta victor one-point-oh.
Spaatz keyed the intercom. Did yall catch that, Chief? Were comin in to th station, but Id take it as a friendly gesture if yall kept them re-act-ors up around, oh, sixty, sixty-five percent, mebbe, case Approach changes sumpn on us at th last second. You know them traffic types, they can be a lil nervous sometimes. And they plumb never think to tell ya everything ya need to know.
Aye, dinna fash, Master Pilot. The reactors and engines be runnin like the sweet bairns they are. Yell have all the power ye need.
Spaatz released the intercom button and shook his head. Why do engineers always have a Scots accent? I know for a fact Chief Murtree hasnt spent a month on Old Earth in his life.
Captain Benson lounged in her command chair, watching and listening to all this. Rabbits had been a recreational species before the Second Revolution, and some of their more amazing physical traits remained. She might be tough and brilliant, but she was still rather artful at lounging.
Now she grinned big. Probably for the same reason all pilots sound like theyre from Hamlin, West Virginia.
Spaatz blinked, almost distracted from his job. Almost. Nothing could really interrupt him when he was in the middle of an approach. His fingers danced on the controls, too fast for someone who wasnt an expert to see what he was doing. But he still had time to sputter West Virginia? We never!
Whatever you say.
Spaatz shook his head. Approach, this heres Hyperion. Weuns I mean, were at the outer range marker, decelerating to zero-point-two-five according to standard approach profile, check?
Roger, Hyperion. Your deviation from middle-of-corridor?
Too small to measure, of course. Delta-V zero-point-two-five KPS. Clear to reduce zero-point-one and handover to automatic docking system?
We check you at middle of corridor. Clear to reduce speed and go automatic. Nice flying, Hyperion.
Thanks, Approach. Chief? Good work, were going to hand over to automatic in about ten.
Why ye be talkin funny, lad? Ye dinna sound like yersel!
Spaatz sighed. Never mind. He nudged the controls with motions imperceptible to the others on the bridge, keeping the ship exactly on the center of the beam until Escee beeped at him and lit the light that said the station had control for final docking. The light was green; that color he could see well enough.
Its a beautiful world, Captain Benson said quietly.
He didnt really have time to look. They might be on automatic approach, but Spaatz still sat tensed over his controls, ready to take over if something went wrong. If the automatic systems go out within the next ten minutes Ill hit disconnect and grab the yoke. First Ill do a quarter roll and break away to clear the station. Once weve missed that, Ill take her over there. Nobody to run into for ten minutes; plenty of time to get her stopped before then.
He shrugged, glancing up from his instruments for an instant. I suppose most worlds are beautiful, even the deadly ones. It looks awfully flat, though. And it must be a low-density planet in a low-density system if Corporates assigned us a regular route here, carrying cargoes of plain old iron, of all things. Is this world all water?
Of course not.
Other than the islands the stations geosynched over, I mean.
Oh. No, quite a bit of land in the southern hemisphere. She nodded to her right, which was vaguely south, now that Triplanetary Hyperion had rotated so that the horizon on the view screen appeared to be, well, more or less horizontal. Its not settled, though. Its dangerous territory. There are native plants and animals there. Some of the critters are big and quite unfriendly, I hear.
Spaatz sighed. Another world where they started on some nice safe islands. They figured theyd move on to the mainland someday, when they were established. And someday hasnt come. Maybe it never will.
What do you care? Benson asked. If folks prefer to move out to more and more worlds instead of crowding the ones they have, thats all the better for our business, isnt it?
I care because I had my heart set on a good run in the woods or in the mountains. I gotta get off this ship and breathe some fresh airno offense, Escee
but I bet they only have beach resorts. Great. At night I can play slot machines at those sucker odds they reserve only for tourists, and I can drink. Twenty-five percent gratuity expected for the cheap, watered rum and the sugar-water with artificial fruit flavoring, at premium booze prices. In the day I can look at a stretch of sandy beach thats exactly like any other stretch of sandy beach in known space. Oh, and if Im really lucky, the local volcano will go bloot, bloot, bloot, and I can watch blobs of melted rock fly around for a while! Frankly, Im ready to risk the monsters on the continent.
They wont let you. Besides, they have some nasty parasites, and the plants are toxic. Well, theyre not poisonous, exactly. Its some human allergic reaction; its not always fatal.
If it was a human allergy, then every sapient genotype was subject to it, including his. Great. I wonder how much theyll charge me for a hamburger made with real
The radio clicked on; it was real radio, at these short distances. Hyperion, automatic docking system reports everything is nominal. Well have you docked in fifteen minutes.
Thank you, Control.
Should I book you a room in a resort, Spaatz? Escee asked.
I suppose. Someplace nice; you know what I can afford. If nothing else, itll make me eager to come back aboard and see your smiling face again. Or your cheerful yellow floating ball of light. Or whatever interface you decide on.
Ill find you a good place.
No practical jokes with the booking, though.
On your shore leave? I wouldnt think of it. Besides, theres no way I could book you into anything strange. You were right: Other than cheap quarters for transient workers, all they have are beach resorts. Sorry.
Spaatz groaned. Some shore leave this was going to be!
Much to his surprise, the Kon-Tiki Resort and Lounge didnt seem such a bad place after all. Once hed settled in, found a nice chair near a fireplace with a nice warm fire of real, burning wood, and got down to some serious relaxing, Spaatz began to enjoy it a little. That wasnt much, but it was more than hed expected.
The architecture was fascinating. It involved a lot of wood and thatch. The furniture involved rattan wherever it was possible for rattan to be. Lighting came from torches that were a little too bright and smokeless to be real.
This architecture was strange, but not unattractive. At least he had to admit it made him feel like he was somewhere away from the boring mainstream worlds. Where did this strange culture come from? He could only guess that some of the first people on this world had crashed here, and had spent years living under primitive conditions before new arrivals restored their tech level to acceptable standards. In the meantime, at least one of the survivors of that crash landing must have gone mad; one with a rudimentary level of artistic talent, apparently. Without imagining an artist who was obsessed, mad, and not very good, he simply couldnt explain all the grotesque carvings of misshapen, grimacing humanoids in weird headdresses. Not to mention the mugs made from whole coconuts, carved to resemble monkey heads.
Strange: All this, to preserve the memory of what must have been a disaster in one of the best vacation places in the Solomons Chain. But he had to honor the locals for making the effort to remember their authentic history. Besides, anyone whod ever eaten a Mama Burger at that rebuilt drive-in restaurant in the Donner Pass, California, back on Earth, shouldnt be surprised at how people chose to remember even the most horrible parts of their history.
Speaking of burgers, his was pretty good. It was a bit of a shock to find that the only so-called burger you could get was made of ground fish, but it was real fish, not synthetic, and these otters really knew how to prepare their seafood. They knew how to mix a good drink, too. This thing they called a Zombie was probably what the weak and overpriced tourist drinks hed had at many a hotel bar before were trying to imitate; the rum was good, and the fruit juices were real. It started out tasting pretty good, then it seemed to just get better and better after the second or third.
The same was true of the local ladies. Amber, now or was she Crystal? No, Crystal was the shorter otteress with brown hair, Amber had more of a gold color, like her name. Oh yes Amber. She was a lovely one. He tried to focus on her, to enjoy her beauty. That slinky little dress she was wearing, that was something he hadnt seen aboard Hyperion! Of course, like most female otters, Amber could have made a burlap bag look slinky if shed worn it. Spaatz wasnt entirely sure what a burlap bag was, but Amber could have made one look slinky, hed have staked his savings on that. Hed have staked his Unlimited Class Heavy Starship Pilot with Manual Hyperspace Jump Certification License on it. He needed another Zombie, or maybe two. Hed have staked Escees memory banksno, he couldnt stake those, they werent his, and Escee would cry, except she didnt really cry, and
He blinked and tried to focus on Crystalno, Amberwhat was she saying? must be such an adventure to visit new worlds all the time. Oh, hello, Biff. Biff was a male; tall for one of the locals, not that that was saying much. He wore swim shorts printed with huge blue flowers on a tan background, and what looked like a big sharks tooth on a string around his neck. Now Biff walked up, put an arm around Ambers waist, and rubbed whiskers with her. He glanced in Spaatzs direction. Hey, Dude, he said. Spaatz didnt care to be Dude. He tried to glare at Biff, but the effort wasnt too effective since only one Biff had called him that, and there were two Biffs, so Spaatz didnt know which one to glare at.
He shook his head and decided to forget the Biffs for the moment. Not usually, he tried to say. Isht like, you know, wherever you go youre there. Same ship and go to the planet, same friends an shhhipmates, and they wont letchu let you let you go any place but the safe tourisssht places, and could I have another Zombie?
Crystalno, Amberfrowned. It made her nose wrinkle. That was so cute! I dont think you should. We dont usually sell anyone more than two.
Thassht thasshts new, tourisssht place wont take more of my money. He smiled at the Ambers and the Biffs across the little table. But thissht is nice place. Wunnerful. Issht the most original thing Ive seen in a dozen planetfalls. In a hunnert. Really.
Biff snorted. This place?
We must have something here you havent seen before, Amber said. I know! They say the volcano over on Darkfurs Island is erupting. Have you ever seen a volcanic eruption, Mr Spaatz?
Spaatz took another swig of his Zombie. Fraid so. She looked disappointed. He didnt want to disappoint her, for some reason. He smiled, or at least he thought he was smiling; he couldnt feel his face very well, it was hard to tell. Jusht once or twice, Amber. I can go over and shee the volcano, sure.
Biff smiled. He wasnt such a bad guy, Biff. Nobody was. They were all good people, he liked them all. Biff was saying Theres surfing, Dude. Weve been cutting the honkers since the first settlers landed at Fosters Bay a hundred years ago. And the Kon-Tikis on the north shore, with nothing but clear seas all the way to the North Pole. We have the best waves on the planet. Thats why Im here.
Fer sure. He fingered the big tooth on its string. I could send you down the coast for some lessons. Wouldnt want a hodad to try the waves here.
Spaatz laughed. Not a beginner, hodad, whatever you call them. I know how to shurf.
Really? Thats a surprise, with you living aboard a starship and all.
What, you doshhhent believe me?
The Biffs shrugged. Ill believe you if you say so, Dude. You want to catch a few, Ill get you a board. Ill be on the beach out front tomorrow at eight; had a big storm up north, the waves should be bitchin. He glanced at Spaatz, took a look at the tableSpaatz didnt know why, there was nothing there of any interest except three empty glasses, and one nearly empty, and four little paper umbrellas; glanced at a multiple-pointered dial (probably a primitive clock?) on the wall, and then nodded to himself. Or maybe ten or eleven, since were up so late. No pressure, Dude; if you want to give it a try, come on down to the beach. And if you dont, thats cool too.
No problem. Ill be there.
Amber looked worried, or at least he thought she did. It wasnt easy to see her face all that clearly, which was a real pity. Are you sure, Carl?
Shure Im shurr. What could poshsibly go wrong?
A chime sounded in the dim hotel room. The lights came up. Nothing else happened.
The chime sounded again. Good morning, and a beautiful day it is! This is your wake-up call. Todays forecast calls for
A clawed hand reached from under the untidy heap of covers on the bed, groping for a pillow to throw. Escee, shut up!
and sunny, with a chance of showers in the mountains. Todays special activities include
Escee, shut up and go away! Im sick. Besides, I dont have to get up, Im on
The clawed hand stopped groping for the extra pillow that wasnt there. The heap of covers heaved. Spaatzs face, ears back, fur rumpled, eyes bloodshot, even his whiskers in disarray, lurched into view. His face nicely matched that of the bizarrely costumed, carved wooden human-god-demon-thing which surveyed him and the room from its place in the corner by the window. Now the window glass was turning from opaque to transparent, revealing an expanse of clear sky, sunlit sand, and water. To the end of the world and beyond, water.
Oh no, Spaatz groaned. He caught his head in his hands and ducked back under the covers again.
Once, aboard the old Stuart Ryerson, theyd had total electronic failure. Viewscreens, radar, mass detectors, inertial navigation, everything had gone. That was supposed to be impossible, so there wasnt anything in the manuals to tell how to handle it.
Worse, theyd lost it all navigating in Earth orbit, on approach to one of the biggest geosynchronous terminals.
Hed flown, in zero gravity, to one of the lifeboats, slaved the ships controls to the boats pitiful little control panel, and hed brought the Ryerson into dock by eye alone. Spaatz was sure that the only reason he hadnt gotten the Pilot Generals Medal for that incident was that nobody among the higher-ups could quite believe hed done what he had.
Another time, during a Herbivore Supremacist rebellion in the Broward Reaches, hed been aboard the express packet Triplanetary Adriatic, carrying an emergency cargo of advanced life support and medical supplies to a world the Confederation Marines had just retaken from the rebels. It was the most valuable cargo hed ever piloted, as far as was openly known. And that was true in peacetime, let alone in time of war, police action, or whatever the bigwigs chose to call it, when advanced medical supplies were even more precious than usual.
Hed brought Adriatic out of hyperspace at the edge of the system. They were immediately jumped by half a dozen unidentified, improvised, but obviously very heavily armed warships. Hed only escaped them by making a suicide dive toward a nearby proto-comet, jettisoning two empty passenger modules, and at the last instant going back into hyperspace to jump through the comet rather than crash into it. The jettisoned modules had crashed into the comet, though, and at a high fraction of C. The resulting explosion would have convinced the rebel ships that Adriatic had been destroyed, assuming they hadnt all been caught in it themselves. Meanwhile, Adriatic popped out of hyperspace again much too deep in that suns gravity well. The strain nearly tore her apart, after which Spaatz had to perform some of the best piloting of his life to get her slowed to a reasonable speed without hitting any of the myriad objects, natural and otherwise, which clutter the inner regions of any inhabited solar system.
In his career, there had been many other incidents nearly as dramatic. Hed been terrified often. Even he, cool as he was, would admit it. After all, when things were normal the automatic systems could really handle things almost as well as a skilled master pilot. It was only when the pucker factor hit critical that he really earned his pay and all the money that had been spent to train him.
But in all those incidents, aboard all those ships, for all those years, Spaatz had never been as terrified as he was now.
Water to the end of the world.
What could he do? What could he do? There had to be some way to get out of this. Maybe he could claim that he was sick. That would work fine for today; after all, he was. (What was in that wretched drink they called a Zombie, anyway? If he ever drank another one of those his stomach churned at the thought of it.) Then maybe if he stayed in his room, had all his meals here, and kept claiming to be sick, they might not know he was afraid to go into the water.
But no, they wouldnt let someone who had just come in from off planet, carrying some unknown disease that the standard screening procedures had missed, be peacefully sick in his hotel room for days and days. Theyd send someone in to check on him; in a Class D Biohazard Suit with full rebreathers, most likely. And thered probably be a quarantine, with full plague containment protocols, and troops ready to move in and burn the bodies That would take his private shame and make a planet-wide headline of it, assuming the headlines didnt reach the whole sector. He could hardly do anything worse!
He should just not show up on the beach. Yes, that was it. Biff had said, or Spaatz thought he remembered Biff saying, that it would be cool if Spaatz didnt show up. But had there been a challenge in that?
Who cared if there was? Biff was just an otter who spent a lot of time following the ridiculous hobby of riding boards along the slopes of waves in real water. Why should Spaatz care whether someone he hadnt even met before last night thought he was a coward?
But he had his honor to protect. Then he had to protect the honor of the ship, which concerned him a little more than his own, and the honor of the Starship Pilots Guild, which concerned him very much. And then his heart sunk to a new low. He realized that when he didnt go surfing, Amber would know that hed chickened out. Hypothetical God preserve him, Amber would know, and she was beautiful and was hardly annoying at all.
No. For once hed admit the truth. None of this not quite annoying crap, he liked her. He liked her, he wanted to sit on the beach in the starlight and talk to her, he wanted to send her texts when he was offworld and see her again when he returned here. She was beautiful and intelligent and kind; shed be a wonderful friend, and maybe she might end up being something more.
He cared what she thought about him, and if he didnt meet Biff on the beach this morning shed know hed promised to do something and had then gone back on his word. Shed know he was afraid of surfing. She might even realize it wasnt the surfing exactly, but the water itself. And how could a lovely young lady (who just happened to be an otter) ever understand, or respect, someone who was afraid of water?
It was only water. He drank water all the time. A little bit of damp fur couldnt be that bad, could it? He could go out and make one run on a surfboard. Surely all the simulations hed surfed through aboard Hyperion would be practice enough that he wouldnt make a total fool of himself.
Then he could come up with some reason not to go out again. Pretend hed twisted an ankle or sprained a wrist or something. He could even twist or sprain something for real if he tried hard enough!
He had to ride one wave. That was all. And wasnt there some way he could keep from getting too wet? He could stand water if there wasnt much of it. Escee had splashed him with water during Surf Surf Revelation, and hed survived that, hadnt he? Hed been rained on before, and hed survived that, right?
What could he do to stay as dry as he could? A suit, yes, that was it. He could hear himself explaining. Most of the worlds Ive visited have been much colder. Irrelevant, misleading, but absolutely true. My fur is too heavy and slows me down when its soaked in water. Also true, probably. He could say those things as if they were true, because they were, and that weird little twitch of his ears and tailtip that always gave him away when he lied wouldnt give him away. Excellent! He had a plan.
Yes, Master Pilot Spaatz?
Do you have a design for a dry suit in standard inventory?
What is a dry suit?
A rubberized suit for swimming.
No, Master Pilot. I do have several lovely wetsuit designs, however. And they are all quite reasonably priced, with an additional ten percent discount on all clothing purchases if you patronize our restaurant or lounge at least once each day of your stay.
A wetsuit. Spaatz shuddered. But even a wetsuit should keep most of the water off him, if he didnt let water inside when he put it on, and if he didnt stay out in the water too long. It would keep him dry, he tried to convince himself, hurrying onward before he had too much time to think about it. Good, good, a wetsuit should be fine. Please make one up to fit me.
Which model would you prefer? We have wetsuits for diving, as well as models for more active sports.
Something for surfing, best quality, latest model. The computer showed him some pictures and nattered on about colors and patterns, but with his eyes he couldnt make much sense of it. Desperately he stabbed a claw at the images, color tables, and pattern graphics floating in midair before him. This one, that pattern, that color, and that, and that. Make it.
Thank you for your patronage. Your wetsuit should be ready in ten minutes.
Fine. Spaatz got off the bed, finally, and staggered off toward the bathroom. He needed a quick electrostatic cleaning and some work with brush and comb before he was fit to be seen by Amber by anyone. He only hoped there wouldnt be any need to vomit as well.
There you are, Dude! Ready to catch a honker?
Spaatz squinted in the merciless sunlight. He could see well enough to tell that was Biff, leaning against the surfboard rack. There was only one Biff now, though. (Just what had they put in those drinks, anyway?)
Ready as Ill ever be. Spaatz tried to be cool and graceful as he left the boardwalk and started across the sand, but it wasnt easy. The wetsuit pulled and pinched in every place it had the slightest excuse. It smoothed down his fur, making him look smaller and sleeker, but then it didnt cover his tail above the base, so his tail was all floofed out while the rest of him wasnt. It looked ridiculous. Proud heritage of his dark longhair ancestry or not, he wished (not for the first time!) that he just kept the wretched fur clipped off short.
Smart thinking, you wearin a wetsuit. I forgot to tell you, last night, about the reef and how sharp the rocks are. They can be a real bummer, Dude. Now Biff squinted as he looked Spaatz over, as if the sun were suddenly too bright for him too. Huh I dont think Ive ever seen a suit like that. Way radical color and pattern!
Spaatz thought quickly. When Im out in the water, I want people to see me. Really see me.
Oh, yeah, good thinking, Dude! Gotta look rad when youre cutting em up. Besides, its a little rough today, and its good if the guards can see ya. I mean, not like youll wipe out, but the wave can always break how ya dont expect, yknow? Happens to the best of us. Even me.
Spaatz pulled his mirrored goggles down over his eyes. The blessed glare cut out, and now he could see that Biff was wearing a wetsuit too, complete down to gloves even as Spaatzs was. Biffs suit wasnt bright at all. It seemed to be colored to match his slick brown fur. Technically speaking, it hid enough of him to satisfy some of the odd religious types who objected to nudity.
He turned to look out to sea and froze in horror. Big waves were breaking over a reef offshore, in a steady sequence interrupted only by a few which were even bigger, which were absolute monsters. He couldnt do it. He couldnt go out in that, but how could he back down now, whenoh, look at that! There was Amber, swimming nearer the shore. She vanished under the water. He saw nothing of her for long enough he began to be alarmed, and then she popped up again, almost to the beach, and stood up. Hypothetical God, that girl knew how to fill out a turquoise bikini! How did anyone ever get so much otter into such a small amount of cloth?
She waved and walked up out of the surf, then jogged over to them. Watching her run was interesting. But why wasnt Amber wearing a wetsuit? Morning, Biff. Morning, Carl. I didnt know if you were going to make it, especially after um, you look ready to go. Im glad you knew to wear a wetsuit. Biff told you to?
No, I just thought it would be a good idea. But you dont wear one?
She laughed. Me? No, I surf, but Id never surf here, especially right after a big storm up north. Theyre the best waves in the world, but its just too dangerous. I think you guys are crazy to try it. I was kind of hoping you wouldnt.
Spaatz stared at her in horror.
Okay, Dude, heres how ya do it: This is a Number Seven Big Gun board with hover. Hovers for hodads, I knowbut dont get your fur up, Im not saying ya dont know how to cut em up. Sure, a real dude wouldnt need hover most places, but see how the wave breaks and shoots through those channels in the reef? Thats where ya gotta get out, and its near impossible to paddle through it. So on this beach we all use the hover, get past the reef, and set down in the water out where its glassy. Well, where the waves arent breaking so much, out there offshore. Right?
Spaatz nodded. He didnt trust himself to speak.
Once youre in the water, catch the wave as usual. Stay this side of that deep hole there Biff waved toward something off to the left, Spaatz couldnt see what, unless it was that place where the water seemed a bit less troubled than elsewhere. or youll have to cut across sharp to keep from coming to shore on those rocks down there, cause if ya do, its bad. Reef scares the hodads some, but its all cool if ya know what to do. Come through the channel there, there, or the narrow one there Spaatz could see those all right, when the waves hit the reef the water gushed through the channels like the blast from a reaction jet. just make sure to stay on top of it til youre clear, and its all cool. If you cant make the channel, just bail out fifty meters or so outside, forty at the closest, and thats cool too. Then you go out and catch another wave to ride in the rest of the way. Not telling ya what to do, Dude, but ya might want to ride a couple of the ankle biters first well, these ankle biters kinda go for the waist, but you know until ya feel how the beach shelves and where ya got to be to cut across and make the channels. Save the honkers for your third or fourth run. Cool?
Spaatz nodded. Cool, Dude, somebody said. It sounded like Spaatz.
Ill watch from here and call the lifeguards if you need them, Amber said.
Aw, Gidget, thats cold. Thats just cold. All right, Dude: Ill go first. Follow me, but dont follow too close; Im shorter, I use a Number Five and a Half, not so fast as yours but I can turn sharper. Cool? Biff took his board off the rack. Holding it by two recessed handles set into its top, he set it down. It rested in midair, its fins not quite touching the sand. He climbed on. The board lifted and began to edge toward the surf.
Cool, Spaatz said, although he wasnt sure anyone could hear him. His throat was dry and his voice sounded faint and strained in his ears. The board that had been next to Biffs must be his. As Biff had said, it was a little longer, fitting his greater height. He set it down and climbed aboard. The handles seemed to work the same as those on a standard lift truck, the kind theyd use aboard ship to move things too big to carry with your hands but too small to need a forklift. It was unsettling to lift up on the handles and raise himself, though.
The two boards tilted and headed out to sea, blessedly well above the water. Spaatz held on for dear life. The board couldnt be moving any faster than thirty kilometers per hour or so, but there was nothing around him but air and nothing to fall into but water. As they cleared the reef a bit of foam flicked across his arm. It couldnt get him through the wetsuit, but Spaatz flinched anyway.
Biff headed out to sea a few hundred meters. He turned the board and landed it in the water. Spaatz followed, landing beside him.
All right, Dude. Let this one pass. Wait, wait that ones going to be too big for your first. Wait this looks good. All right. Go go go!
Biff dug his hands into the water and paddled like mad. Spaatz tried to do the same, but his hands stopped themselves at the last instant. It was water! That was all it took. The rise of the wave lifted him, then let him down its seaward side, but Biff was gone. Moving forward with the wave, standing up on his board, riding toward the land. The otter cut across the wave to the left, back to the right, turned again and had a long straight ride that took him right through the widest channel and into the calmer waters inshore from the reef. And Spaatz was all alone on the face of the sea. Water to the end of the world and beyond.
He shook his head. He had to get out of here, and there was only one way to do it. He tried to remember his training, to banish fear. He was piloting a surfboard. That was itpilotinghe had to do it just right. But he could do it just right, because that was what he did. He was a pilot. Hed made split-second moves, when he had only one chance to make four hundred meters of steel and titanium, with the wealth of worlds and a hundred lives or more aboard, dance past disaster with the grace and agility of a swallow on the wing. Surely he could pilot a few feet of balsa and plastic when only his pride, probably not even his life (probably) rode in the balance.
There was another wave coming up behind him now. Spaatz didnt waste any time thinking about it, because if he had it would have stopped him again. He made his hands shoot forward and dig into the water, paddling, paddling, ignoring the water that soaked through the pores of the suit and beneath. The board moved, the wave lifted it. The board skimmed forward like a living thing. His training from the endless hours in the gym kicked in. He was up on his feet before he knew it, feet spread wide, arms and tail counterbalancing, as the wave built up and the board shot forward faster and faster.
The wave lifted him high.
The wave lifted him higher and kept lifting him. It was a monsterit was one of the enormous onesif he fell from this it would make pulp of him no, it wouldnt, not if he fell off short of the reef, he should fall off now, it was only water. Water. Water.
Desperately, he bounced forward and toward the side of the board, and it turned to slice across the face of the wave. He had no idea how fast he was going now, but the wind roared in his ears. Or was it the surf roaring across the reef ahead? No, he was past the channel, he could never make it. And ahead, as he sliced across the face of the wave toward the left, the wave was beginning to rise up, getting sharp at the top, ready to break.
He turned the nose of the board downslopea quick turn to the rightthe wave was cresting, breaking. It built right over his head and he was surfing through a pipe of green water that collapsed behind him with a roar as he shot forward. Must go faster, must go faster, get the hell out of this tube before it fell on him! He shot out of the tube. He didnt see what the wave did to him then, it seemed like it went right out from under him and the board went airborne and spun in a flat horizontal circle, he was going to fall down and he would probably be all right even though he was closer to the reef now than he really should be, just fall down into the nice soft water water water! He screamed in terror, somehow shifting forward and keeping the board level. It splashed into the face of the wave, nearly caught the back end and went under, he had to leap to the front end of the board and hang on with all eight toeclaws, balanced for a preposterous long second clinging to the front edge of the board with his toes, then the board settled down again. He quickly moved back toward the center. To the right, where he was heading, the wave was building up and beginning to dissolve into chaos as it neared the reef. He shifted back on the board again, tilting to catch a bit of the surge of the water, and it threw the board around, reversing course toward the left again. Hed missed the channel, the main channel of the reef, but if he got enough speed across the face of the wave he could make the third one, the narrow onewater water waterhe had to stay up, he danced and leaped along the board, somehow staying upright as the wave came apart beneath him, and then he was in the channel and the dying wave shot him and the board crazy-fast into the calmer waters beyond the reef. The wreckage of the wave faded away from beneath him, he moved back on the board, its nose lifted, this was it, he was doomed, he couldnt think of another thing to do to avoid it. The water rose to his knees, soaking his fur higher and higher as the board tilted and slowed and stopped, and before he could shift forward again the water came up and surrounded him in clear crystal of the most lovely pale green, with a few small fish nearly close enough to catch and the sun making patterns on the sandy bottom that were beautiful enough to take his breath away, if he hadnt been holding it.
The water was warm.
He came back to the surface. He grabbed his board, let another wave lift him a bit closer to shore, hed actually made it close enough to the sand that he could walk the rest of the way after that. His heart was racing; he was so scared he could hardly breathe; but Hypothetical God, that had been something! So much like the simulations, yet nothing like them at all. He was scared, he was something else, he couldnt tell what. He picked up his board and walked ashore. His tail felt like it weighed an extra twenty kilograms from the water that soaked the fur. He was sure he looked like a drowned rat the vermin kind of rat that got into the cargo and chewed it up, not one of Captain Bensons very distant cousins. But he wouldnt let anyone see how he felt. He told himself he was cool, calm, and collected, every inch the professional Master Pilot, and he meant to do all that. It hadnt been an accident, he hadnt been afraid, he hadnt hesitated, he hadnt screwed up and nearly killed himself, and above all else, he had done exactly what he had intended to do. It was all on purpose.
All of it.
Coming out of the water, he put on a bit of a swagger. He hoped his ears and tail werent twitching.
Wide-eyed, Biff was waiting for him at the surf line. He couldnt read the otters expression. Spaatz lifted his ears a bit, as if asking Well?
Duuuuuuude! Biff said. He made it sound like a prayer. Considering the surroundings, maybe it was.
Spaatz pursued the large, glowing canary through Triplanetary Hyperions corridor. The bird sang like a real canary, when it wasnt talking to him, but its scent was that of a full turkey dinner. The scent had a note of cranberry sauce that seemed especially sharp to him.
He was only glad that Escee didnt ever appear to him as a female otter with a golden tint to her fur, wearing a turquoise bikini. Escee knew about Amber, of course; Escee handled all the mail, among other things. But she wouldnt make herself appear as anybody whom any of the crewmembers knew. That seemed to be one of her basic rules. Was that part of her original programming, or was it something shed picked up on her own over the years? Spaatz didnt know. It really didnt matter, he supposed.
So you had a good time on your shore leave after all? Escees words were innocent enough, honestly so as far as Spaatz knew.
He smiled. It went well enough, he allowed.
The double door hissed open, revealing the gym in all its glory of naked steel. The usual?
Spaatz nodded. The usualbut with a different setup. Set scenery, bottom topography, and all environmental variables to match the beachfront of the Kon-Tiki Resort and Lounge, where I spent my shore leave. And Escee?
Yes, Master Pilot?
The programs real water effects? Go ahead and leave them in.
Are you sure, Master Pilot? Are you absolutely sure?
I dont mind a little bit of water, as long as its warm. Make sure its warm, and well be all right.
Escee sounded doubtful. If you say so.
The beach and sea appeared around him. His surfboard, a Number Seven that was nearly an exact replica of the one hed used on his shore leave, bobbed to the surface of the imaginary water.
Spaatz smiled. He climbed up on his board. He reached up to his neck and straightened the shark tooth on a string that he wore as a necklace. Then he knelt down on his board and began paddling out to sea.