by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2009 Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers

Home -=- #27 -=- ANTHRO #27 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

   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 you’re awake,” she said. “Don’t 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.”
   “You’d sleep your life away if I let you. C’mon. Get up.”
   “Go away.”
   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 him—no 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 can’t catch me!”
   “That’s not funny, Escee.”
   “Yes, it is! I cross-referenced against 17,862 joke books, psychological studies, and humor vids to be sure.”
   “You don’t have that many in your library.”
   “I hyperlinked to Central; don’t say I never did anything for you. Or maybe I’m lying. But you won’t find out which unless you get out of bed. Come on, it’s 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 wasn’t actually moving.
   The odds of anybody seeing him chasing a toy mouse through the Triplanetary Hyperion’s 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 ship’s 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 she’d counted on it. SC-1198s weren’t 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 more—least 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 Spaatz’s favorite. He preferred it because he found it less annoying than the others.
   “The usual?” she asked.
   He really wanted a hunting game—something 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?
   She’d 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 didn’t 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 Benson’s 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 gym’s 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 he’d 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 didn’t 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 to—ah, 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 steepened—should 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, he’d have to—Whoa, 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 like—Yes! 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 that’s what it looked like, but of course it was all bent gravity and bent light, there was no actual…
   Splat! Water!
   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 you—no water!”
   “I’m sorry, Master Pilot. It’s part of the program—”
   “—and I told you to cancel the water! You hunk of junk, why can’t 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. I’m sorry I screamed at you. Look, no water, okay? Don’t cry, but I really, really, don’t like water.”
   “I’m sorry, Spaatz. And I don’t cry. I can’t.”
   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. “It’s all right, girl. It’s all right. Just… please don’t forget again, or at least don’t hit me with water when I’m exercising before my watch, all right? When I’m not awake yet, it’s just too much to bear.”
   “No problem, Master Pilot.”
   “All right. Let’s go again. By the way, what’s 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, it’s more of a challenge this way. Let’s 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 don’t 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, y’all got the Triplanetary Hyperion runnin’ a mite heavy here, corridor charlie-three. Our delta vector’s three-point-oh, an’ ever’thin’s jus’ copacetic. How ya read?”
   “Reading you five by five, Hyperion. Please state spacecraft type and primary cargo.”
   “Roger that, Approach. Hyperion’s a Blohm und Voss CL-6 re-conn-fig-your-able gen’r’l-purpose cargo liner with a bulk cargo of bee-bees an’ twelve passengers.”
   “Wuff! Iron pellets! You weren’t 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-6’s a grand old bird, this ain’t nothin’ we cain’t handle. Roger copy our approach charlie-five, delta victor one-point-oh.”
   Spaatz keyed the intercom. “Did y’all catch that, Chief? We’re comin’ in to th’ station, but I’d take it as a friendly gesture if y’all kept them re-act-ors up around, oh, sixty, sixty-five percent, mebbe, ’case Approach changes sump’n 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. Ye’ll 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 hasn’t 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 they’re 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 wasn’t 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 here’s Hyperion. We’uns… I mean, we’re 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, we’re going to hand over to automatic in about ten.”
   “Thanks, laddie.”
   “Thank you.”
   “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.
   “It’s a beautiful world,” Captain Benson said quietly.
   He didn’t 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 I’ll hit disconnect and grab the yoke. First I’ll do a quarter roll and break away to clear the station. Once we’ve missed that, I’ll 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 Corporate’s 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 station’s 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. “It’s not settled, though. It’s 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 they’d move on to the mainland someday, when they were established. And someday hasn’t 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, that’s all the better for our business, isn’t 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 air—no offense, Escee—”
   “None taken.”
   “—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 that’s exactly like any other stretch of sandy beach in known space. Oh, and if I’m really lucky, the local volcano will go bloot, bloot, bloot, and I can watch blobs of melted rock fly around for a while! Frankly, I’m ready to risk the monsters on the continent.”
   “They won’t let you. Besides, they have some nasty parasites, and the plants are toxic. Well, they’re not poisonous, exactly. It’s some human allergic reaction; it’s not always fatal.”
   If it was a human allergy, then every sapient genotype was subject to it, including his. “Great. I wonder how much they’ll 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. We’ll 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, it’ll 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.”
   “I’ll find you a good place.”
   “No practical jokes with the booking, though.”
   “On your shore leave? I wouldn’t think of it. Besides, there’s 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 didn’t seem such a bad place after all. Once he’d 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 wasn’t much, but it was more than he’d 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 couldn’t 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 who’d ever eaten a Mama Burger at that rebuilt drive-in restaurant in the Donner Pass, California, back on Earth, shouldn’t 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 he’d 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 hadn’t seen aboard Hyperion! Of course, like most female otters, Amber could have made a burlap bag look slinky if she’d worn it. Spaatz wasn’t entirely sure what a burlap bag was, but Amber could have made one look slinky, he’d have staked his savings on that. He’d have staked his Unlimited Class Heavy Starship Pilot with Manual Hyperspace Jump Certification License on it. He needed another Zombie, or maybe two. He’d have staked Escee’s memory banks—no, he couldn’t stake those, they weren’t his, and Escee would cry, except she didn’t really cry, and…
   He blinked and tried to focus on Crystal—no, Amber—what 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 shark’s tooth on a string around his neck. Now Biff walked up, put an arm around Amber’s waist, and rubbed whiskers with her. He glanced in Spaatz’s direction. “Hey, Dude,” he said. Spaatz didn’t care to be ‘Dude’. He tried to glare at Biff, but the effort wasn’t too effective since only one Biff had called him that, and there were two Biffs, so Spaatz didn’t 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 you’re there. Same ship and go to the planet, same friends an’ shhhipmates, and they won’t letchu… let you… let you go any place but the safe tourisssht places, and… could I have another Zombie?”
   Crystal—no, Amber—frowned. It made her nose wrinkle. That was so cute! “I don’t think you should. We don’t usually sell anyone more than two.”
   “Thassht… thassht’s new, tourisssht place won’t 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 I’ve seen in a dozen planetfalls. In a hunnert. Really.”
   Biff snorted. “This place?”
   “We must have something here you haven’t seen before,” Amber said. “I know! They say the volcano over on Darkfur’s 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 didn’t want to disappoint her, for some reason. He smiled, or at least he thought he was smiling; he couldn’t 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 wasn’t such a bad guy, Biff. Nobody was. They were all good people, he liked them all. Biff was saying “There’s surfing, Dude. We’ve been cutting the honkers since the first settlers landed at Foster’s Bay a hundred years ago. And the Kon-Tiki’s on the north shore, with nothing but clear seas all the way to the North Pole. We have the best waves on the planet. That’s why I’m here.”
   “You shurf?”
   “Fer sure.” He fingered the big tooth on its string. “I could send you down the coast for some lessons. Wouldn’t want a hodad to try the waves here.”
   Spaatz laughed. “Not a beginner, hodad, whatever you call them. I know how to shurf.”
   “Really? That’s a surprise, with you living aboard a starship and all.”
   “What, you doshhhent believe me?”
   The Biffs shrugged. “I’ll believe you if you say so, Dude. You want to catch a few, I’ll get you a board. I’ll 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 table—Spaatz didn’t 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-pointer’ed dial (probably a primitive clock?) on the wall, and then nodded to himself. “Or maybe ten or eleven, since we’re up so late. No pressure, Dude; if you want to give it a try, come on down to the beach. And if you don’t, that’s cool too.”
   “No problem. I’ll be there.”
   Amber looked worried, or at least he thought she did. It wasn’t easy to see her face all that clearly, which was a real pity. “Are you sure, Carl?”
   “Shure I’m 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. Today’s 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. Today’s special activities include—”
   “Escee, shut up and go away! I’m sick. Besides, I don’t have to get up, I’m on—”
   The clawed hand stopped groping for the extra pillow that wasn’t there. The heap of covers heaved. Spaatz’s 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, they’d had total electronic failure. Viewscreens, radar, mass detectors, inertial navigation, everything had gone. That was supposed to be impossible, so there wasn’t anything in the manuals to tell how to handle it.
   Worse, they’d lost it all navigating in Earth orbit, on approach to one of the biggest geosynchronous terminals.
   He’d flown, in zero gravity, to one of the lifeboats, slaved the ship’s controls to the boat’s pitiful little control panel, and he’d brought the Ryerson into dock by eye alone. Spaatz was sure that the only reason he hadn’t gotten the Pilot General’s Medal for that incident was that nobody among the higher-ups could quite believe he’d done what he had.
   Another time, during a Herbivore Supremacist rebellion in the Broward Reaches, he’d 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 he’d 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.
   He’d 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. He’d 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 hadn’t all been caught in it themselves. Meanwhile, Adriatic popped out of hyperspace again much too deep in that sun’s 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. He’d 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 wouldn’t 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. They’d send someone in to check on him; in a Class D Biohazard Suit with full rebreathers, most likely. And there’d 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 Pilot’s Guild, which concerned him very much. And then his heart sunk to a new low. He realized that when he didn’t go surfing, Amber would know that he’d chickened out. Hypothetical God preserve him, Amber would know, and she was beautiful and was hardly annoying at all.
   No. For once he’d 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; she’d be a wonderful friend, and maybe she might end up being something more.
   He cared what she thought about him, and if he didn’t meet Biff on the beach this morning she’d know he’d promised to do something and had then gone back on his word. She’d know he was afraid of surfing. She might even realize it wasn’t 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 couldn’t be that bad, could it? He could go out and make one run on a surfboard. Surely all the simulations he’d surfed through aboard Hyperion would be practice enough that he wouldn’t make a total fool of himself.
   Then he could come up with some reason not to go out again. Pretend he’d 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 wasn’t there some way he could keep from getting too wet? He could stand water if there wasn’t much of it. Escee had splashed him with water during Surf Surf Revelation, and he’d survived that, hadn’t he? He’d been rained on before, and he’d 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 I’ve visited have been much colder.” Irrelevant, misleading, but absolutely true. “My fur is too heavy and slows me down when it’s 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 wouldn’t give him away. Excellent! He had a plan.
   “Room computer?”
   “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 didn’t let water inside when he put it on, and if he didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 I’ll ever be.” Spaatz tried to be cool and graceful as he left the boardwalk and started across the sand, but it wasn’t 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 didn’t cover his tail above the base, so his tail was all floofed out while the rest of him wasn’t. 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 don’t think I’ve ever seen a suit like that. Way radical color and pattern!”
   Spaatz thought quickly. “When I’m out in the water, I want people to see me. Really see me.”
   “Oh, yeah, good thinking, Dude! Gotta look rad when you’re cutting ’em up. Besides, it’s a little rough today, and it’s good if the ’guards can see ya. I mean, not like you’ll wipe out, but the wave can always break how ya don’t expect, y’know? 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 Spaatz’s was. Biff’s suit wasn’t 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 couldn’t do it. He couldn’t go out in that, but how could he back down now, when—oh, 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 wasn’t Amber wearing a wetsuit? “Morning, Biff. Morning, Carl. I didn’t know if you were going to make it, especially after… um, you look ready to go. I’m glad you knew to wear a wetsuit. Biff told you to?”
   “No, I just thought it would be a good idea. But you don’t wear one?”
   She laughed. “Me? No, I surf, but I’d never surf here, especially right after a big storm up north. They’re the best waves in the world, but it’s just too dangerous. I think you guys are crazy to try it. I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t.”
   Spaatz stared at her in horror.
   “Okay, Dude, here’s how ya do it: This is a Number Seven Big Gun board with hover. Hover’s for hodads, I know—but don’t get your fur up, I’m not saying ya don’t know how to cut ’em up. Sure, a real dude wouldn’t need hover most places, but see how the wave breaks and shoots through those channels in the reef? That’s where ya gotta get out, and it’s 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 it’s glassy. Well, where the waves aren’t breaking so much, out there offshore. Right?”
   Spaatz nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak.
   “Once you’re 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 couldn’t see what, unless it was that place where the water seemed a bit less troubled than elsewhere. “—or you’ll have to cut across sharp to keep from coming to shore on those rocks down there, ’cause if ya do, it’s bad. Reef scares the hodads some, but it’s 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 you’re clear, and it’s all cool. If you can’t make the channel, just bail out fifty meters or so outside, forty at the closest, and that’s 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.
   “I’ll watch from here and call the lifeguards if you need them,” Amber said.
   “Aw, Gidget, that’s cold. That’s just cold. All right, Dude: I’ll go first. Follow me, but don’t follow too close; I’m 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 wasn’t 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 Biff’s 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 they’d 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 one’s 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 it—piloting—he had to do it just right. But he could do it just right, because that was what he did. He was a pilot. He’d 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 didn’t 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 monster—it was one of the enormous ones—if he fell from this it would make pulp of him… no, it wouldn’t, 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 downslope—a quick turn to the right—the 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 didn’t 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. He’d 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 one—water water water—he 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 couldn’t 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 hadn’t 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, he’d 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 couldn’t 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 Benson’s very distant cousins. But he wouldn’t 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 hadn’t been an accident, he hadn’t been afraid, he hadn’t hesitated, he hadn’t 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 weren’t twitching.
   Wide-eyed, Biff was waiting for him at the surf line. He couldn’t read the otter’s 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 Hyperion’s corridor. The bird sang like a real canary, when it wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 she’d picked up on her own over the years? Spaatz didn’t know. It really didn’t matter, he supposed.
   “So you had a good time on your shore leave after all?” Escee’s 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 usual—but 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 program’s real water effects? Go ahead and leave them in.”
   “Are you sure, Master Pilot? Are you absolutely sure?”
   “I don’t mind a little bit of water, as long as it’s warm. Make sure it’s warm, and we’ll 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 he’d 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.

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