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Journal #822-

A visit to Hix’s World appears, at first glance, to be a step into the deepest past. Yet nowhere else are you likely to find a society so completely dependent on an intimately interconnected, highly technological, spacegoing galactic community-and oblivious to that very dependence. Hix’s World appears to have been founded on the premise that one can eat one’s cake and still have it to admire. That, at least, is the only way I can interpret the notion of a bucolic existence that somehow manages to avoid such bucolic inconveniences as labor, famine, pestilence, and general misery.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Hix’s World is the belief of many of its citizens that their way of life embodies the deepest spiritual values of modern civilization. From the point of view of a thoroughgoing pragmatist such as myself, such a belief appears as paradoxical as the inhabitants’ belief that they have freed themselves from dependence on the technological infrastructure of the Alliance as a whole.

As far as I can tell, this belief is an utter delusion.

The customs inspectors at Hix’s World gave Phule’s luggage an unusually thorough going-over. Having spent part of the voyage reading up on the planet’s culture and customs, he was neither surprised nor unprepared. After replacing a couple of toiletry items with “Hix’s-safe” equivalents at the shipboard store, he received the inspectors’ thumbs-up and went on his way after only forty minutes. His immediate destination was a boardinghouse that catered to off-world clients, a likely place for Beeker and Nightingale to be staying-and a good place to stay, himself.

He arrived at La Retraite Rustique to find the sitting room full of tourists dressed in casual but expensive outfits, waiting to be called for the evening meal. The well-dressed young woman behind the desk shot an exasperated look in his direction, wrinkling her nose at his Legion jumpsuit. “May I assist you?” she asked, in a tone of voice that made it clear she hoped she couldn’t.

“Quite likely,” said Phule, setting down his bag. “First of all, I’m interested in a room.”

“Impossible,” said the woman, throwing up her hands. “We have been fully booked since the beginning of Waarmth.” Hix’s World had adopted its own eccentric calendar, featuring supposedly natural names for the time units equivalent to months.

“Ah, good for you,” said Phule, smiling broadly. “I’m glad to know that such a fine establishment is so popular- but I’m sure you can find an open room for one of the old regulars.” Phule himself had never been there, but his mother had taken vacations on Hix’s World several times while he was growing up-which was how he knew of the place.

“Regular or irregular, it is simply impossible,” said the woman, with an air of finality. “There’s not even a closet to be had. The entire district is full for the Floribunda Fete.”

Phule kept a broad smile on his face as his hand went into his pocket and returned with a small rectangular object which he placed on the counter just in front of the woman. She dropped her gaze to inspect it; when she looked up, with a gasp, her eyes were open wide. “A Dilithium Express card!” she whispered.

“Yes,” said Phule. “Do you think that’s good for a closet?”

“I think we can arrange something,” she said. “At your service, Mr.-uh…” She tried to make out the name on the card.

“Captain Jester will do,” said Phule. “Now-about that room…”

“Madame will be delighted to have you here, Captain!” she said. The young woman clapped her hands, and a man appeared from a door behind the desk. His tastefully rustic attire did not in the least disguise the fact that he was the bellman. “Andrew! Show the Captain to the Olympic Suite!”

The Olympic Suite was several degrees more elegant than any closet Phule had ever seen. Phule tipped Andrew, closed the door behind the bellman, and poured himself a cold glass of mineral water from the suite’s refreshment center. He sat down at the suite’s communications center, which was tastefully hidden inside a faux-Victorian rolltop desk. He’d learned from his mistakes on Cut ‘N’ Shoot and Rot’n‘art. No more dashing about on a wild gryff chase, or worse yet depending on locals whose entire stake in the success of his search consisted of a generous paycheck- an overly generous one, considering the lack of results on Rot’n’art. This time, he was going to use his own very ample resources to track down Beeker and Nightingale.

He synchronized his Port-a-Brain with the hotel’s web hookup, and began an automatic scan for Beeker’s machine, a virtual twin of his own. If Beeker’s computer had been connected to the planetary network anytime in the last two weeks, Phule’s machine would be able to detect it. Better yet, if the machine was currently in use, he should be able to locate it instantly. If that happened, he intended to charter a private jumpcraft to the exact location-with any luck, in plenty of time to catch his errant butler. Of course, if Beeker had turned on his computer, he should have seen Phule’s email. Had he not turned it on? Or had he seen the message and decided, for some reason, not to answer it?

Much to his relief, the Port-a-Brain was still functional; the special security systems hadn’t taken over. So Beeker must be in range. He started his custom search engine, and, while it ran, went to look out the suite’s picture windows, which overlooked a stretch of countryside that could have been somewhere in Provence, several centuries earlier. In fact, it was a careful reproduction of a stretch of ancient Provencal countryside, brought about by the most unintru-sive and organic methods available, of course. If an occasional bush was the wrong species or color, that was a small price to pay for a program of minimalist terraforming.

As he cast his gaze over the pleasant contours of the rolling hills, covered with Old Earthlike greenery, Phule could hear the Port-a-Brain gently whirring in the background. It was a very soothing sound, telling him that one of the most powerful artificial brains in the known galaxy was working to solve his problem. In the middle distance he saw something moving; just what, he couldn’t quite determine. Probably some creature imported from human worlds; the settlers hadn’t so much expelled the indigenous flora and fauna from the terraformed sections as gently persuaded them to take their business elsewhere. Even so, a few species had stubbornly resisted the program-part of the charm of the place, Hix’s World old-timers would tell you.

Then, all of a sudden, his eyes went into sharp focus and he forgot entirely about the whirring of the Port-a-Brain. There, crossing the faux-Provencal landscape, was none other than Nightingale!

The owner of La Retraite Rustique sat in her office, looking over architects’ renderings of the new addtion she planned for her hotel. She hated trying to extrapolate from the drawings to the actual structures they purported to represent. “Damn lying pictures,” she muttered. “Why can’t they show you what it’s really going to look like?” The answer was obvious, of course-if the drawings looked like the finished product, the customer was a lot less likely to pay for the work.

There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” she growled, not really annoyed at the interruption as much as generally disgruntled. She’d once owned the most fashionable and lucrative resort hotel and casino on Lorelei. Now she was trying to start over on a new world-and finding it a lot more work than she had any appetite for.

Robert, the concierge, entered. “Good news, Madame,” he said. “We’ve just rented the Olympic Suite, at double the regular rate. Some Space Legion officer with a Dilithium Express card…”

“Space Legion officer? Dilithium Express?” Maxine Pruett sat bolt upright in her seat. “It can’t be… what’s this man’s name?”

“Captain Jester,” said the concierge. “Of course, all Legion names are pseudonyms…”

“Pseudonym, hell-I know Jester,” said Maxine. “For your information, his real name’s Willard Phule. The little son of a bitch nearly ran me out of business on Lorelei-or did you miss that particular episode?” Maxine had plenty of reason to remember it, since it had broken the mob’s control of the casino business on Lorelei. Combined with the defection of Laverna, her most trusted assistant, it had also toppled her from her perch at the top of the Lorelei syndicate-which was ultimately why she’d moved her operation to Hix’s World.

“I must confess I hadn’t remembered the man’s name,” said Robert, warily. “Would you like me to rind some pretext to deny him the room? It should be simple enough-I can always claim that some high official of the planet needs the space.”

Maxine frowned and lit a cigarette. “No, that would just move him someplace else. Let’s keep him here where I can keep track of him. What I want to know, though, is what’s he doing here? He has to know it’s my place-why else would he be here?”

“He apparently claimed a family connection,” said Robert. “That’s not impossible-but not very likely, either. I’ll tell the waitresses and bartenders to see if they can find out the real reason from him.”

“Tell ‘em there’s a bonus if they get what I want,” said Maxine, pounding a fist into her other palm. “He’s got to be here to interfere with my plans for the casino. How the hell did he find out? Bastard!”

“We’ll learn whatever we can, Madame,” said Robert. “I can probably have his suite searched while he’s out, as well. Are there any other instructions?”

“Yeah, search the suite,” said Maxine, nodding. “But be careful-I don’t want him to know he’s being spied on, and he’s probably got better security systems than most banks. We don’t want to make him suspicious. Find out where he’s going when he leaves the hotel, and who he sees. And let me know if anyone comes asking for him-especially anybody else in a Legion uniform.”

“I’ll tell the staff,” said Robert. “Anything else?”

An evil grin came to Maxine Pruett’s face. “Yeah. I’d like to set a trap or two for him. Here’s my idea…”

It took Phule something less than five minutes to get from the Olympic Suite to the gardens he’d been viewing from the window, where he’d seen Nightingale-or her twin sister. By the time he got there, the woman was nowhere to be seen, of course. But short of jumping out of a third-story window, there was no more direct way he could have gotten to the gardens.

He stared around in frustration, trying to figure out which way she could have gone. There were three paths leading away from the clearing where he’d spotted her, all of which turned corners quickly enough that he couldn’t see very far down them. He picked the path that seemed closest to the direction she’d been going when he saw her. Fifty paces down the path he came to a clearing, with three more forks leading away. There was no sign that anyone had come this way recently. Making a snap decision, he took the middle fork. Fifty paces farther, there was another clearing, again with three paths…

Phule stopped and scratched his head. Running blindly after her-without even knowing which way she’d gone- was a waste of time and energy. For one thing, he was likely to make enough noise to warn anyone worried about avoiding pursuit. On the plus side, he now knew that Nightingale and Beeker were in the near vicinity. Perhaps they were even staying at the same hotel! He was likely to get much quicker results by asking the right questions. He turned and headed back to the hotel; time to use my head instead of my feet, he told himself.

His first stop was the front desk, where he pushed the call button for the manager. As he waited, the gentle sounds of ancient folk music drifted out from the dining area: a harp, a flute, and some kind of soft percussion instrument. Phule wasn’t sure whether the sounds were live or recorded, although given the Hix’s World passion for rustic authenticity, live was a fair bet.

After a moment, the desk clerk appeared. This time the woman’s face broke into an eager-to-please smile, a predictable effect of his having flashed his Dilithium Express card at check-in. “Yes, sir, how can I assist you?” she chirped.

“I just saw an old family friend’s wife out the back window,” Phule said, in a casual tone of voice. “But she was gone by the time I got out there to look for her. I had no idea she and her husband were visiting Hix’s World, or I’d have looked them up to ask them out for dinner. Could you tell me which room Mr. Beeker is staying in?”

“Beeker, Beeker,” said the woman, knitting her brows. “Are you certain he’s staying with us? I don’t recall the name…”

“Older fellow, tends to dress a bit conservatively,” said Phule. “His wife’s a younger woman…” Phule gave as complete a description of the fugitives as he could, right up to what Nightingale had been wearing when he saw her out the window. But by the time he finished, the manager was shaking her head.

“That doesn’t sound like anyone who’s staying with us,” she said. “Our gardens are open to the public. She could have come in from the streets, or anywhere.”

“I guess that’s possible,” said Phule, rubbing his chin. “Is there someplace else they might be staying? Someplace close enough that one of them might be walking in your gardens?”

“Our gardens are a widely known attraction,” said the woman, spreading her hands apart as if in welcome. “They so regularly won top prizes in the Floribunda Fete that the former owners withdrew them permanently to give others a chance… But as for where this person might be staying nearby… Well, there are several private homes that take in tourists. Your friends might be at any of them.”

Phule nodded. “Fine, can you give me a list?”

“It’s not something we usually track,” said the woman. “Any list would be out of date rather quickly. Besides, your friends could well be staying with someone whom they know socially, rather than one of the boardinghouses.”

“That’s a chance I’ll have to take,” said Phule, leaning his elbow on the counter. “Just tell me any that you do know, and I’ll see if Beeker’s staying with them. If not, I’ll just have to catch up with the old rascal back home and tell him he missed a free dinner on Hix’s World.”

“Best of luck finding him, sir,” said the woman. “And if you do turn up Mr. Beeker and his wife, I think you’ll find our dining room a very pleasant place to entertain them.”

“Thanks-I’ll remember that,” said Phule. “Now-you were going to give me a list of places?”

The woman smiled and gave him the list. A few moments later Phule was placing the first of his calls…

The sign on the wall behind the hotel desk read, no dis-clavery. Sushi stared at it, trying to figure out whether it was a misspelling of some more familiar word, but nothing seemed to fit. He shrugged; if he didn’t know what it was, he decided he wasn’t likely to be doing it. He reached out and touched the bell on the desk.

After a delay just long enough to be annoying, a sour-faced woman appeared at the desk. “What ‘n the world you want, stranger?” she sniffed.

“Do you have a room for two?” asked Sushi. “We’re probably going to be here at least two nights, maybe more if business is good.”

“Probably and maybe don’t pay the rent, mister,” said the woman. “How many nights do you wanf!”

“I’ll take two,” said Sushi. “Can we extend that if we find out we need it longer?”

“Maybe,” said the woman, with a shrug. “This here’s a busy town, and there’s more people than rooms sometimes. You want to hold it longer, you give me up-front money. Nobody makes a better offer, you get to keep the room.”

“Any refund if somebody makes a better offer?”

“You sure do ask a lot of questions, stranger,” said the woman. “We don’t take kindly to Nosy Neds hereabouts.”

“Two nights, then,” said Sushi, firmly. “And my name’s not Ned.”

“You know, there’s a law ‘gainst giving wrong names to hotels,” said the woman, with a suspicious stare.

“That’s triff, lady, but maybe you noticed we didn’t give you no names, yet,” said Do-Wop. He squinted at the sign behind the counter. “Does that sign mean you’ve run out of disclavery? I got pretty good connections-I bet I could get you a batch, real cheap.”

“Disclavery’s against the law on this planet!” said the woman, giving Do-Wop the kind of look reserved for admitted criminals. She stepped back from the counter a pace.

“Well, that won’t matter with my connections… OOF!” Do-Wop doubled over and began to make strangling noises. Probably the elbow Sushi had jammed into his solar plexus had something to do with his sudden distraction.

Seizing the opening, Sushi stepped forward, flashing his brightest smile. “No need to worry about that,” he assured the landlady. He fished out his wallet and continued, “My friend’s a real joker, but he doesn’t mean anybody harm, not one bit. We really do respect the laws of all the worlds we visit, and that certainly includes Hix’s World. Now, how much do we owe you for that room?”

The landlady favored Sushi with a suspicious glare, but the money in his hands seemed to settle the issue. “Ninety-two,” she said. After a moment she amended herself: “Ninety-two apiece, and no rowdy stuff.” She sketched a nod in the direction of the no disclavery sign.

“Fine,” said Sushi. “Here’s for two nights.”

“Number six, in back,” said the woman, jerking her thumb in that direction. “You c’n carry yer own bags.”

“I guess we can,” said Sushi. “Come on, buddy, let’s stow the bags, and then we can get down to business.” He reached down and picked up his duffel bag, and motioned to Do-Wop to do the same.“

“Yeah, yeah,” said Do-Wop, who’d more or less recovered his breath. “I can’t wait to find the captain so’s I can go back to goofin‘ off.”

“Remember, you two,” said the woman behind the desk. “I find out you’re up to any kind o‘ mischief-and I p’rtic’rly mean disclavery-I’m callin’ the sheriff!”

“Great freakin‘ place you found us, Soosh,” muttered Do-Wop, as he shouldered open the door to the outside. Perhaps fortunately, the woman behind the desk didn’t seem to hear him.

Chocolate Harry boldly strolled into the captain’s office as if he had every legitimate reason in the world to be there. In fact, he knew nobody was likely to question him. That was just as well, because inside, he was all but quivering in his oversize boots. Like many men who exploit loopholes and ambiguities in the rules, he had a secret fear of being caught-and while he was damned good at lawyering his way out of a situation, he always worried that he might someday meet his match. Captain Jester had given him considerable leeway. But at the moment, the captain wasn’t here to protect him. And that could mean big trouble.

“Well, right on time, Sergeant,” said Major Sparrowhawk, who’d taken the liberty of sitting in the captain’s desk chair. “Pull up a chair-no point being uncomfortable while we’re talking business.”

“Business?” Chocolate Harry’s expression was guarded. “ ‘Scuse me, Major, but I didn’t know we had any business to talk about.”

“Well, Sergeant, I’m about to fill you in on it,” said Sparrowhawk. “Sit down; the chair’s not wired.”

“OK, I’m sitting,” said Harry. He turned the chair around so the back was between him and the general’s adjutant, as if to give him some protection in case she started throwing things at him. “What’s the scam?”

“Good choice of wording,” said Sparrowhawk, dryly.

“You’ve probably noticed that General B is getting really involved in his golf game here.”

“Hard to miss that,” said Harry. “In fact, considering how many of the guys are getting into the daily pools, I’d say it’s become the main attraction. What about it?”

Sparrowhawk crossed her arms and looked Harry directly in the eye. “What if I told you that, in spite of the wonderful attractions and thrilling people here on Zenobia Base, I’m a city girl at heart? In fact, suppose I said I’m getting utterly bored out here and want to get back home?”

“What, and give up Escrima’s cookin‘?” said Harry with an evil grin.

“I’d even give up that, good as it is,” said Sparrowhawk, with a look that left no doubt she meant it. “To put it bluntly, I need to come up with a way to make the general stop whacking around that stupid little ball.”

“And then?” said Harry. “S’pose he decides to start busting Captain Jester’s chops, which everybody knows is why he came to Zenobia Base to begin with. That don’t do nothin‘ for me.”

“I know this might come as a surprise to you, Sergeant, but it doesn’t do a damned thing for me, either,” said Sparrowhawk. “As I said, I just want to get back to Rahnsome Base and my own home and friends. I hope this isn’t a serious blow to you.”

“I’m tough enough to take it, Major,” said Chocolate Harry. “It’ll put a hole in my bottom line, but I can take it.” He shrugged and looked back at Sparrowhawk. “But you didn’t haul me in here to talk about that-or did you?”

“My, you’re slow,” said Sparrowhawk. “Getting the general off this godforsaken base and back to Legion Headquarters is exactly what I’m trying to do. And the whole reason he’s still here is that stupid game. Bad enough he putzes around with it in his office. Outdoors? In those silly shorts? Puh-leez! About the only good side of things is that he hasn’t asked me to cabby for him.”

“I think it’s called caddy, Major,” said Harry.

“Whatever it’s called, I’m glad I’m not doing it,” said Sparrowhawk. “Now-it has occurred to me that you can put a stop to the game if you’re so inclined. And I mean to see that you are so inclined.”

“Say what?” Harry’s voice went up an octave, and his frown betrayed utter bewilderment. “How you think I can stop the game?”

“What’s the one thing they can’t play without?”

Harry rubbed his chin. “You got me, Major. Grass? Clubs? Those flags that show ‘em were the holes are? Whisky?”

“Balls,” said Major Sparrowhawk.

“Hey, no need to get nasty,” said Chocolate Harry, drawing himself up to his full height, which was impressive even in a sitting position. “I’m tryin‘ to give you a straight answer…”

“Balls,” repeated the major. “Those little white balls they keep hitting around the park. They can’t play the game if they run out of those, can they?”

“I guess not,” said Harry. “Only thing is, there’s plenty of ‘em. The captain had me order-up three gross of Titleists when we were settin’ up the golf course, and the supplier threw in six dozen PoDos for a bonus…”

“They’re all going to disappear,” said Sparrowhawk, grimly. “All of them. I don’t care how you do it-I don’t need to know how you do it, as long as it’s done. I don’t want a single golf ball to be on this base by this time tomorrow.”

“I could do that,” said Harry. “It’ll be a little chancy, but 1 can do it.” He leaned forward. “What’s in it for me?”

“Getting the general off your back isn’t enough?” Sparrowhawk sat back in the chair, an expression of disbelief on her face.

“It ain’t my skanky ass he’s after, pardon my French,” said Chocolate Harry. “What’s the worst gonna happen to me? Kicked out of the Legion? Transferred to another unit? He can’t throw me into a combat unit, ‘cause there ain’t no wars to begin with.“

“How about military prison?” said Sparrowhawk. “You’ve run up a rather spectacular record of corruption…”

“Which is different from the rest of the Legion how?” said Harry, with the demeanor of an utterly reasonable man. “Alls I say is, you take care of me, I take care of you. Here’s what I got in mind…”

They talked for another hour, but at the end they had an agreement.

It was a beautiful morning. The air was clear and pristine; the temperature on the warmer side of moderate; and the sounds of birds (or something with very birdlike vocal equipment) wafted upon the gentle breeze.

Do-Wop stepped out onto the immaculately kept lawn in front of the hotel and sneezed loudly-twice. “Jeez, this dump makes me itch all over,” he said, wiping his nose on the sleeve of his uniform. “Can’t they do somethin‘ ’bout the air?”

“I think they already took care of that,” said Sushi. “Or didn’t you read the Mandatory Visitor and Immigration Notices they handed out on the shuttle down?”

“Who had time for that?” said Do-Wop. “I had twelve replays on the padouki console, best run in years.”

“Well, good for you. But all those replays kept you from finding out that because of the environmental regulations, the air here is the healthiest in the galaxy,” said Sushi, shrugging. “Or so the Hixians claim. Maybe you’re just allergic to uncontaminated air…”

Do-Wop interrupted him with another sneeze. “If this is healthy, gimme some industrial fumes,” he growled. “Where we goin‘ today, anyhow?”

“The captain’s staying in a little place a couple of miles away,” said Sushi, pointing in the general direction. “He must think Beeker’s somewhere in the neighborhood, so we have to work on the same assumption…“

“Why?” interrupted Do-Wop. “What if the captain’s wrong, and Beeker’s halfway around the planet?”

Sushi rolled his eyes. “If he’s wrong, we’ve got the whole planet to search-and no idea where to start. If he’s right, we’ve at least got a plan. Which way do you want to play it?”

“Depends,” said Do-Wop, wiping his nose on his sleeve again. “Is there somewheres else we could go look, where maybe the air’s a bit unhealthier?”

“Gee, great attitude from a guy who’s met Barky, the Environmental Dog,” said Sushi. “If you’d read the Notices, you’d have found out that the whole planet is a pollution-free zone, which means there isn’t going to be a whole lot of difference in the air wherever you go. So the best thing for you is probably to work your butt off trying to help the captain find Beeker, so we can get off this planet and back to Zenobia before your nose falls off.”

“That’d be a great idea except for the part about work,” said Do-Wop. “It don’t look like I’ve got a whole lot of other choices, though. So how are we gonna find ol‘ Beeker?”

“Good question, considering we already haven’t managed to find him on two other worlds,” said Sushi. “I guess the best place to start is to ask ourselves where we’d be on this planet if we were Beeker?”

“I already know that,” said Do-Wop. “I’d be on some other planet, where there’s some life. This place is way too laid-back for any city boy.”

“If that’s the way you feel, you ought to be even more anxious to get the job done and head for home,” said Sushi. “Come on, there’s supposed to be a row of touristy shops in the center of town. Let’s take a stroll down there and see if we spot our guy-or our Nightingale.”

“Aw right, aw right,” said Do-Wop. “I can’t feature Beeker doin‘ touristy stuff, though. You think the dude even owns a T-shirt?”

“For all I know, he’s got a hundred of ‘em,” said Sushi, as the two legionnaires started off toward town at a leisurely pace. “Who knows what he wears underneath that starched shirt of his?”

Do-Wop frowned, then answered, “For all I know, it’s purple antirobot cammy.”

Having exhausted the subject of Beeker’s wardrobe, Do-Wop and Sushi trudged along, staring at the pathway leading into town. Like most paths they’d seen on Hix’s World, it was paved with native flagstones, carefully chosen to harmonize with the scenery. It rarely held to an absolutely straight line, preferring gentle curves that followed the natural contours of the local terrain. A split-rail fence paralleled it on one side. It was thoroughly lovely, in a self-righteously rustic way.

Around the curve just ahead of them, there came a woman riding a bicycle. She saw the two pedestrians, and reached out to squeeze the bulb of an old-fashioned air horn mounted to the handlebars. Sushi and Do-Wop looked up and automatically moved to the side to let her by. It was only after she was past them and rolling around the next curve in the path that Sushi turned around and stared after her. “Hey, did you see that? That was Nightingale!”

“No shit?” said Do-Wop, wheeling around. “Hey, let’s go get her!”

But she had more than enough of a head start to outrun them both.

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