home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add


Journal #811-

Being a tourist is at once a pleasure and a burden. One is liberated from the routines of work and daily business, to be sure. One can arise late, dawdle over breakfast, add a bottle of wine to luncheon, and spend all ones time being unproductive, without anyone thinking ill of it. On the other hand, one feels a certain obligation to do the area one is vacationing in. Is there an ancient ruin, a famous battlefield, or a dramatic sunset to be seen? All ones friends will assuredly inquire about it upon ones return, and one will learn that the missed attraction was the high point of everyone elses visit to the world in question. So instead of enjoying a few weeks leisure, one dutifully exhausts oneself visiting all the various museums, ruins, battlefields, scenic vistas, theaters, stadiums, beaches, cemeteries, jails, and other noted attractions. In the end, one might as well have stayed home and gone to work every day.

The two men stepped off the star liner into the long, empty corridors of Rotnart and looked around. Wow, some place, said Sushi, looking around at the dilapidated terminal.

Yeah, the joint gives me the creeps, said Do-Wop. Just like home

I believe you, said Sushi. He looked at the corridor stretching off in both directions. I dont see any sign of activity. Which way do you think we ought to go?

Do-Wop looked both ways, then shrugged. You pick. When we got a whole planet to look for him on, I figure it dont make much difference which way we start out. Just like lookin for trouble-you wanna find it, its gonna be there.

That almost makes sense, admitted Sushi. OK, it looks a little brighter that way- He pointed to the left. Lets go there and see what we find.

They shouldered their duffel bags and made their way along the trash-lined corridor. They dodged around a puddle of dirty water left by a leaking pipe in the ceiling, and rounded a corner to find themselves in front of an old-fashioned self-service newsstand. Hold on, said Sushi. I want to check out the news.

What? Do-Wop slapped his forehead with the heel of his hand. These machines are so old, they probly dont even work.

Youre the one who said we had a whole planet to look for him on, said Sushi, stepping up to one of the coin-operated monitors. And these machines ought to work-I doubt anybodyd leave them here if they werent bringing in enough to pay the rent on the space. Besides, do you want to spend a couple of weeks hunting all over the planet when a couple minutes research couldve told us hes sitting in jail somewhere?

Nah-no farkin way Capn Jesters in jail, sneered Do-Wop. Hed buy his way out before they got the door half-closed behind him.

Maybe, said Sushi. But he might still be in the news. So Im still going to see if hes gotten himself noticed. You can check out the ball scores, or the numbers, while youre waiting.

Do-Wop scoffed. What, and pay a couple bucks to log on? Ill just look on your monitor when youre finished playing.

Yeah, right, said Sushi. He turned and faced his partner, clenched fists resting on his hips. Im researching local conditions so we can do our job more efficiently, and you call it playing. And then, on my cred, Im supposed to let you check on how your lamebrain bets came out? Not a chance!

Now, boys, its hardly worth getting upset over, said a quiet voice. In fact, you can both log on and Ill pay for it, it continued.

At the unexpected words, Sushi stood up and looked around. All right, who said that?

For his part, Do-Wop shrugged. Hey, long as hes springin for the time, who cares? he said. Grinning, he walked over to one of the news monitors and began keying in his preferences.

Wait a second, said Sushi, touching his partner on the shoulder. It could be some kind of trick

Trick? Whats a trick? said the voice. All I do is offer to give you boys a little free time on the newsnet so you dont spend the next ten minutes ruining my peace and quiet with your arguing, and that starts you off on another argument. Im beginning to wonder if maybe I made a mistake.

Uh, sorry, we didnt mean to insult you, said Sushi, looking around to see who was talking. But, excuse me- it might be a bit easier if we could see you I mean, no offense intended, but I like I know who Im talking to.

See me? Why, Im right here in front of you, said the voice. As Sushi and Do-Wop watched, one of the line of antiquated newsreaders rolled forward and stopped, with an audible creak. Its screen flickered for a moment, then a photo of a gently smiling human face appeared. It was the face of an elderly woman, with plenty of crinkly lines around the corners of the mouth and eyes. Now, does that make you feel better about talking to me?

Gee-that looks like my mom! said Do-Wop, staring.

Funny you should mention that, said Sushi. It looks like my mom, too

Of course I do, said the newsreader. Im designed to project each customers personal maternal image so theyre getting the news from somebody they trust. And whom do you trust more than your mother-hmm?

I guess you have a point there, said Sushi. Im looking for-my friend and I are looking for-our boss, Captain Jester. Can you tell us whether hes shown up in the local news anytime recently?

Checking said the reader, her screen flickering through a series of graphics too rapid for the unaided eye to scan. After a few moments, the motherly face reappeared, this time with a hint of a worried frown. Im sorry, I dont seem to have that name in my local newsfiles-assuming by local you mean this planet, and by recent you mean within the last month. Is that close enough?

Yeah, it ought to be, said Sushi. He should have gotten here before we did-unless the FTL paradoxes are acting up again Well, well just have to do our search the old-fashioned way. Cmon, Do-Wop, lets get started.

Hey! Dont forget-I gotta look up the winning numbers! Do-Wop said.

All right, sonny, said the newsreader. What do you want?

Do-Wop nodded eagerly, and said, Gimme the daily Play-Four and Crazy Six for the last two weeks on Lorelei. I got a feelin my shuttles comin in today!

Ooh, I like a boy who isnt afraid to take a risk, said the newsreader, with a convincing simulation of a giggle. Here you go, then-but remember, bet on your head, not around it!

What? said Sushi, trying to make sense of the newsreaders last words. But neither Do-Wop nor the newsreader was paying him any attention.

Good morning, General Blitzkrieg, said the robotic Captain Jester. Allow me to introduce your partner for today-Lieutenant Armstrong.

General Blitzkrieg turned an appraising eye on the clean-cut lieutenant, recognizing the officer whod greeted him upon landing. The lieutenant and I have already met, he said. And if looks mean anything, the fellow ought to be a decent golfer, he added, silently. Armstrongs erect bearing and trim figure held the promise of a sweet swing and a fair amount of distance. With any luck, the fellow would win his share of holes and in the process help the general shave a few strokes off his own score. He reached out his hand, and said, Good to see you again, Lieutenant. I hope youre not afraid to put a little hurting on your captain, because when I get on a golf course, I mean business.

Ill give it my best shot, sir, said Armstrong, timidly shaking the generals proffered hand. I wont pretend to be the caliber of partner you usually get back at Headquarters

Dont put yourself down, man, growled Blitzkrieg, scolding. I mean to win this match, whether I get any help from you or not. And I can promise you I wont hold it against you if you can help me pick up a hole or two. And I promise that what little remains of your chance at a respectable Legion career will go straight down the toilet if you let that upstart Jester beat me.

I dont think Armstrong will hold you back any, General, said Jester, grinning. Hes a natural, if ever I saw one. Makes me wish I had more time to practice. Oh, and here comes my partner-I was afraid hed been held up in town, but it looks as if hes ready to go.

General Blitzkrieg glanced at the diminutive figure hauling a half-size golf bag, then did a double take. What the hell is that? he exploded, staring at the four-foot-tall dinosaur in a Legion uniform.

Jester chuckled. General, permit me to introduce Flight Leftenant Qual, our Zenobian liaison. He was the first Zenobian we ever met, and hes taken to Alliance ways as if he was born 10 em. Qual, meet General Blitzkrieg, my commanding officer.

Ah, the egregious generalissimo! said Qual brightly. He dropped the golf bag and rushed forward to seize the generals hand in both his, pumping vigorously. I have followed your career with consternation!

Eh? said Blitzkrieg. Im not sure I follow

Quals translator plays some strange tricks, said Jester. Hard to tell what he means, half the time. Something to do with the Zenobian language, our comm people tell me. Theyre looking into using it as a new method of encryption. But hes a fine fellow, and nobody loves a round of golf better than he does-though hes apt to try some very strange shots, every so often. Even so, I thought youd like a chance to meet our native military liaison.

Well, as long as youre not bringing in a ringer on me, said the general, whod had exactly that done to him on more than one occasion. The lizard didnt look much like a golfer, but of course, few hustlers ever did.

Oh, no, said Jester, perhaps a bit too hastily. No such thing, General. Flight Leftenant Qual started playing just a couple of months ago, and I consider myself lucky to shoot a round much under ninety, these days. Thats the downside of running a post like this-way too little time to keep up your golf game.

Blitzkrieg allowed himself a tight-lipped smile; he wasnt about to believe Jester for one moment. He wouldnt put it past Jester to import a professional golfer from Lorelei to give him an edge in the match; hed drafted more than one local pro for the same purpose, himself. And he certainly knew Jester wasnt going to make the effort to put in a golf course on the post and then not make time to play on it himself. He smelled a very definite rat.

But a post commander who had the temerity to show up his commanding general on the links would soon find out that Blitzkrieg had his ways of getting even. Very effective ways they were, too. Few officers ever made that mistake a second time. He almost hoped that Jester was going to try to pull something fast on him; itd make it so much more enjoyable to give the grinning jackanapes his comeuppance at the end of the day. For now, he contented himself by saying, Well, why dont we hit a few practice shots, then get down to business?

That is a stupefying proposition, said Qual, flashing a mouthful of fearsome serrated teeth as his caddy-a little long-eared sophont in a Legion jumpsuit-handed him a sawed-off driver. Let us pound the pellet, O great com-manderant! Anterior! The Zenobian flailed away at the ball, which bounded erratically down the driving range.

Blitzkrieg reached for his own driver. He still wasnt quite sure what to make of the Zenobians strange language, but thered be plenty of time to figure out whether or not he was being insulted when the round was over. Until then, he was going to play some golf.

It took Do-Wop and Sushi a while to find the trans station, and when they found it, they had a moment of doubt whether it was what they were looking for.

Soosh, this place is deserted, said Do-Wop, peering down the ill-lit, dirty platform. Strictly speaking, deserted was an exaggeration; there were at least three other people visible: a nervous-looking couple with suitcases at the other end of the platform they were standing on, and a man sleeping on a bench across the way from them.

Its just the off-hours, said Sushi. He set down his travel bag and stretched his arms. Its evening, local time-most people are probably home, watching tri-vee or something.

Yeah, right, said Do-Wop, unshouldering his own bag. Must be somethin pretty good on tonight, is all I can say. Even back home, theres usually people on the trans any time of day or night. And the spaceport oughta be one of the main stops

Maybe we just missed a trans, said Sushi, shrugging. There could have been two hundred people here, and wed never know it if they all got on the trans and left just before we came up the stairway.

And nobody got off? It dont figure, said Do-Wop, suspiciously.

Off-hours, again, said Sushi. I bet there arent any more departures until morning. Most people want to start their travel during daytime hours. Relax, its nothing sinister.

Do-Wop shook his head. I dunno, Soosh. This whole planet smells like an abandoned building. Whyd Beeker want to come here, anyhow?

Sushi shrugged. I guess you have to know the history. Rotnart used to be the capital of the Alliance, the place where all the major decisions were made. The government offices employed billions of people, and they eventually roofed over the whole planet to build housing for them.

Yeah, I could see that from space, said Do-Wop. He kicked a balled-up food wrapper off the platform and into the trans groove. It hung there in midair, suspended by the antigrav field. Like one big ball of metal, orbiting out there. Except its all dented and beat-up-whyd they let that happen?

More history, said Sushi. That all happened after the Alliance grew too big to administer from one single world, even with FTL space travel. Some of the offices moved to other worlds, where it was cheaper and easier to hire local people than to transfer people from Rotnart. So a big chunk of the planet was suddenly unemployed.

Bummer, said Do-Wop. Whatd they do?

Put everybody on relief, said Sushi. Which mightve been OK if theyd figured out a way to bring in new jobs for them. But once somebodys used to government work, there arent a lot of other jobs theyre willing to take. Especially not for less money.

Makes sense to me, said Do-Wop. Nobody wants to take less money. So everybody left, which explains why theres nobody on the trans

Some people left, said Sushi. He stepped forward to the edge of the trans groove and looked down the tunnel, then stepped back and continued, Most of them stayed, though. I guess they figured the good times and the good jobs would come back. And they ran through their savings, and the job market kept shrinking, and the infrastructure kept getting worse. I cant believe you didnt learn all this in school

What school? said Do-Wop. Planet I come from, we were lucky to learn how to turn on a tri-vee, if we were lucky enough to have one.

That figures, said Sushi. And you must not have had one, or turned it on very often, either, or youd know that Rotnart is still one of the most popular tourist destinations in the galaxy. Most of the slack in the economy got filled with service jobs aimed at the tourist industry.

Thats gotta be bogo, said Do-Wop, peering around with an unbelieving look. I cant believe anybody comes here for a vacation.

Oh, come on, said Sushi. The Alliance Senate is still here, which means there are plenty of bigwigs on-planet, at least when the Senates in session. So therere still five-star restaurants and fancy hotels for the senators and their staffs, and the lobbyists and other people who come here for government business. And they attract lots of tourists who want to see the so-called center of the galaxy, which is probably what Beekers doing here.

Inspectin the slums? Aint my idea of fun, said Do-Wop.

You still dont get it, said Sushi, his hands on his hips. As long as the restaurants and museums and public buildings are still good-looking, the rest of the world can fall apart as far as the tourists are concerned. Most of them never even see where the service workers live-just like on Lorelei.

I guess they dont use the trans, either, said Do-Wop. In fact, Im starting to wonder if there is any trans this time of night.

Sushi cocked an ear toward the tunnels. How much you want to bet on that?

Nothin, said Do-Wop. I can hear as well as you can, sucker. He picked up his luggage just as the trans popped out of the tunnel and glided to a halt at the platform.

Too bad, said Sushi, grinning. I was hoping to make enough to pay for supper tonight. Come on, lets not miss this one.

Not a chance, said Do-Wop. Together the two legionnaires scooted through the open doors onto the waiting trans. After a moment, the doors closed and they were off into the maze of tunnels that served Rotnart as a lifeline of communications.

Sushi and Do-Wop must have taken a wrong turn in the winding alleyways of Rotnart City-more likely, theyd taken a few wrong turns. Actually, that wasnt very hard; a high percentage of the street signs were missing or defaced, and a higher percentage were unlighted. Even when they could see the name of the street they were on, it was likely as not to change its name without notice at any given intersection. Theyd pretty much given up on trying to follow the map theyd gotten at the spaceport. Once theyd gotten out of the trans station, they might as well have been looking at a map of some other planet. With no sky visible, they couldnt even use the stars to get a rough idea of what direction they were going in. In short, no more than twenty minutes after getting off the trans, they were impossibly lost.

Theyd finally decided just to find a major street, in hopes of spotting one of the citys landmark buildings and orienting themselves that way. So when they came to still another badly lit intersection, Sushi felt a glimmer of hope when he spotted bright lights a few blocks away along the cross street. Thats got to be a major intersection, he told Do-Wop, tugging on his partners sleeve and pointing.

Yeah, or maybe somethins on fire, said Do-Wop. Having grown up in a blighted urban environment, he was well aware that bright lights werent always good news.

Even if it is, therell be people there, said Sushi. We can ask directions. Come on! For some reason, theyd seen almost nobody on the streets. The few theyd seen had either avoided them or, like the ragged man theyd found sleeping on a hot-air vent a few blocks back, had been completely unresponsive to their requests for directions.

As they neared the lights, they became aware of a loud rumbling noise ahead of them. It quickly became clear that there was a large crowd ahead of them. A sporting event? Onlookers at a fire, or some other emergency? In any case, it was people. Sushi quickened his steps, and Do-Wop reluctantly followed.

When they came to the intersection, they were momentarily stopped by a thigh-high ferrocrete barrier. But ahead of them was the first open space theyd seen. Theyd come out into some kind of park, or large plaza, one side of which was crowded with citizens. On the other side was a line of emergency vehicles, around which armored police were gathered in a skirmish line.

Theyd found people, all right. What they hadnt counted on was finding themselves in the middle of an incipient riot.

For the moment, the center of the crowds attention was a wiry, wild-haired man standing on an overturned hover-car, exhorting the crowd through some kind of portable amplifier.

Whats the word? shouted the leader.

Greebfap! shouted the crowd. Greebfap!

Do-Wop crouched with Sushi behind the barrier. They were perhaps fifty meters from the crowd. Not far away, the riot police were adjusting their gear. This looks like its really gonna blow sky-high, said Do-Wop, rubbing his hands together. Which side you wanna go with?

Go with? said Sushi, horrified. I want to go as far away from here as I can. If I had any idea which way the nearest trans stop was

Ahh, you dont know how to have fun, said Do-Wop, picking up a two-foot length of plastic piping from the ground and smacking it into his other hand like a club. I think the civilian sides the one to go with. Beyond the barrier the Greebfap! chant was building, settling into a rhythm.

You think its fun getting your head beaten in, or being knocked down and stomped on? Ill take a rain check, said Sushi. These cops have got body armor and helmets, in case you didnt notice.

Yeah, yeah, the cops always have that stuff, said Do-Wop, peering over the barricade. These guys dont look like much, though. I bet the civvies can take em. Come on, Soosh! He vaulted over the barrier and, crouching low, sprinted toward the milling group of chanters. One of the riot police pointed at him, but they made no effort to stop him.

Damn! said Sushi, looking around for a moment. Guess us Legion guys have got to stick together, he said. He vaulted the barrier and sprinted full speed to join his buddy in the crowd. A cheer went up as he crossed the open space. Behind him he heard a popping sound. What was that? he asked as he pulled up next to Do-Wop, who crouched near the edge of the crowd, eyeing the riot police.

Rubber bullets, said Do-Wop, grinning. Dont worry, Soosh, they missed ya by a mile. Cops never could hit a moving target.

Sushis face turned pale. So why arent we both moving straight away from here?

Do-Wop grinned and pointed with his makeshift plastic club. Too late now, man-here come the cops.

Greebfap! Greebfap! We want Greebfap! The chant rose higher as the crowd gathered itself to meet the charge.

This has got to be totally against Legion regulations, Sushi said, more to himself than to Do-Wop-who probably wouldnt care. In most circumstances, Sushi wouldnt have cared, either. But in most circumstances, a violation of Legion regulations wouldnt get him shot by rubber bullets (or something worse), trampled and clubbed by charging riot police, and thrown into jail for good measure-and that would be before the Legion found out what hed been doing. Then again, if hed broken a few regulations at some Legion base, hed at least have a chance to talk his way out of whatever trouble he was in. Somehow, he didnt get the impression that the Rotnart police were going to be any more persuadable than Do-Wop, just at the moment.

On the other hand there was somebody here he might be able to persuade.

He reached over and grabbed a bullhorn from a startled man who was leading the Greebfap! chant, leapt onto an overturned hovertaxi, and began to address the crowd

Phule watched the demonstration from the window of his hotel room, sipping on a glass of imported white wine. Upon arrival on the planet, hed checked into the Rotnart House, where his family had maintained a suite ever since the days when his father made regular trips to close deals with planetary governments, quasi-governmental institutions, wildcat militias, and others with ready cash and a hankering for armaments. Hed already done a quick sweep of the suite for the usual bugging devices-not that Phule had any plans to discuss sensitive business there, but checking was always a good idea, especially on Rotnart, the acknowledged galactic center of the espionage game. Now he almost wished he had a bug planted in the plaza below, where tiny figures moved and gestured, but he could hear only the loudest of the group chants. Greebfap! Greebfap! What were they protesting, or demanding? He couldnt make heads or tails of it.

Eventually, having decided that the crowd wasnt likely to turn violent, and that there were enough police and robots on hand to handle it if it did, he turned from the window and booted up his Port-a-Brain laptop. The overriding question was how he was going to locate Beeker. He knew the butler was on this planet; the Port-a-Brain had told him that. But where would Beeker have gone, here on this rusty former capital of the Human Alliance? And why hadnt he answered Phules email?

He called up a guide to local tourist services, trying to guess which attractions would appeal to Beeker (or to Nightingale, although he had much less sense of her taste and interests than of his butlers). There were a few historic buildings that one could tour, none of which struck him as likely to command anyones interest much beyond half an hour. Slightly more promising were a couple of art museums, although reading between the lines of the guide made it clear that, in an attempt to make up for budget shortfalls, the most interesting artworks had been deaccquisitioned- many to off-planet collectors.

From there it went steadily downhill. With most of the planet having been roofed over in its boom days, there was almost nothing in the way of natural scenery or outdoor activities-at least, from the point of view of anyone whod been to a real planet recently. And Phule couldnt imagine anyone-certainly not Beeker-wanting to spend his vacation time viewing industrial museums or public works.

So what did that leave? The guide said that the locals were fanatical in their devotion to professional team sports. Something called haki was apparently in season right now, and from the publicity holos it looked like a fast-moving, physically demanding game. But if Beeker had any interest in sports, hed managed to conceal it entirely from his employer.

The performing arts section offered no better clues. There was a large concert hall in town, and tickets for the current attraction-Ruy Lopez and the Bad Bishops-were in heavy demand. Searching further, Phule found a sample of Lopezs music, and endured about seven seconds of it before deciding that Beeker probably wasnt interested in that, either. As for the theater, the stars were complete unknowns (at least to Phule), and the plot summaries of the current offerings ran the gamut from boring to bizarre without ever managing to pique his interest. Granted, his taste differed from the butlers, but as far as Phule could see, the local theater was between golden eras.

For a planet that touted itself as the Galactic Center of Everything, Rotnart was revealing itself to be a surprisingly dull place. Could he be completely mistaken in thinking he knew Beekers tastes and interests?

Another idea occurred to him. Nightingale might have been the one whod suggested coming to Rotnart, for reasons of her own. Could she have grown up on Rotnart and still have family here? Legion privacy policy meant that thered be no official record of that, but Phule suspected that Perry Sodden, the investigator hed hired, could find out easily enough. If shed grown up locally, or if she had family here, that would give Phule his first useful clue as to why she and Beeker had come here-and maybe tell him where he could catch up to them.

Phule added the note to a list of questions for Sodden. Hed scheduled a meeting with the investigator for the next day. The list was already on its second page. Maybe all these questions would turn out to be superfluous. Maybe Beeker would answer his email. Or maybe Sodden would appear for the meeting with exactly the answers Phule was looking for, and then he could go meet Beeker and convince him to end this silly escapade and return to Zenobia and start doing his job again.

But it didnt hurt to prepare for the possibility that Sodden had had no more luck than Phule. Phule took a sip of his drink, rolled his shoulders to fight the tension in his muscles, and stared at the Port-a-Brains screen once more.

It was late by the time he turned out the lights.

| Phule's Errand | c