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 one’s 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 one’s friends will assuredly inquire about it upon one’s return, and one will learn that the missed attraction was the high point of everyone else’s 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 Rot’n‘art 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 don’t 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 don’t make much difference which way we start out. Just like lookin‘ for trouble-you wanna find it, it’s gonna be there.”
“That almost makes sense,” admitted Sushi. “OK, it looks a little brighter that way-” He pointed to the left. “Let’s 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 prob’ly don’t even work.”
“You’re 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 anybody’d leave them here if they weren’t 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 could’ve told us he’s sitting in jail somewhere?”
“Nah-no farkin‘ way Cap’n Jester’s in jail,” sneered Do-Wop. “He’d 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 I’m still going to see if he’s gotten himself noticed. You can check out the ball scores, or the numbers, while you’re waiting.”
Do-Wop scoffed. “What, and pay a couple bucks to log on? I’ll just look on your monitor when you’re finished playing.”
“Yeah, right,” said Sushi. He turned and faced his partner, clenched fists resting on his hips. “I’m researching local conditions so we can do our job more efficiently, and you call it playing. And then, on my cred, I’m supposed to let you check on how your lamebrain bets came out? Not a chance!”
“Now, boys, it’s hardly worth getting upset over,” said a quiet voice. “In fact, you can both log on and I’ll 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 he’s 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? What’s a trick?” said the voice. “All I do is offer to give you boys a little free time on the newsnet so you don’t spend the next ten minutes ruining my peace and quiet with your arguing, and that starts you off on another argument. I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I made a mistake.”
“Uh, sorry, we didn’t 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 I’m talking to.”
“See me? Why, I’m 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. “I’m designed to project each customer’s personal maternal image so they’re 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. “I’m looking for-my friend and I are looking for-our boss, Captain Jester. Can you tell us whether he’s 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. “I’m sorry, I don’t 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, we’ll just have to do our search the old-fashioned way. C’mon, Do-Wop, let’s get started.”
“Hey! Don’t 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 shuttle’s comin’ in today!“
“Ooh, I like a boy who isn’t 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 newsreader’s 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 who’d 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. Armstrong’s 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 you’re not afraid to put a little hurting on your captain, because when I get on a golf course, I mean business.”
“I’ll give it my best shot, sir,” said Armstrong, timidly shaking the general’s proffered hand. “I won’t pretend to be the caliber of partner you usually get back at Headquarters…”
“Don’t 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 won’t 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 don’t think Armstrong will hold you back any, General,” said Jester, grinning. “He’s 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 he’d been held up in town, but it looks as if he’s 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 he’s 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 general’s hand in both his, pumping vigorously. “I have followed your career with consternation!”
“Eh?” said Blitzkrieg. “I’m not sure I follow…”
“Qual’s 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. They’re looking into using it as a new method of encryption. But he’s a fine fellow, and nobody loves a round of golf better than he does-though he’s apt to try some very strange shots, every so often. Even so, I thought you’d like a chance to meet our native military liaison.”
“Well, as long as you’re not bringing in a ringer on me,” said the general, who’d had exactly that done to him on more than one occasion. The lizard didn’t 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. That’s 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 wasn’t about to believe Jester for one moment. He wouldn’t put it past Jester to import a professional golfer from Lorelei to give him an edge in the match; he’d “drafted” more than one local pro for the same purpose, himself. And he certainly knew Jester wasn’t 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; it’d 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 don’t 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 wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Zenobian’s strange language, but there’d 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.
“It’s just the off-hours,” said Sushi. He set down his travel bag and stretched his arms. “It’s 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, there’s 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 we’d never know it if they all got on the trans and left just before we came up the stairway.”
“And nobody got off? It don’t figure,” said Do-Wop, suspiciously.
“Off-hours, again,” said Sushi. “I bet there aren’t any more departures until morning. Most people want to start their travel during daytime hours. Relax, it’s nothing sinister.”
Do-Wop shook his head. “I dunno, Soosh. This whole planet smells like an abandoned building. Why’d Beeker want to come here, anyhow?”
Sushi shrugged. “I guess you have to know the history. Rot’n‘art 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 it’s all dented and beat-up-why’d 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 Rot’n‘art. So a big chunk of the planet was suddenly unemployed.”
“Bummer,” said Do-Wop. “What’d they do?”
“Put everybody on relief,” said Sushi. “Which might’ve been OK if they’d figured out a way to bring in new jobs for them. But once somebody’s used to government work, there aren’t a lot of other jobs they’re 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 there’s 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 can’t believe you didn’t 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 you’d know that Rot’n‘art 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.”
“That’s gotta be bogo,” said Do-Wop, peering around with an unbelieving look. “I can’t 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 Senate’s in session. So there’re 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 Beeker’s doing here.”
“Inspectin‘ the slums? Ain’t my idea of fun,” said Do-Wop.
“You still don’t 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 don’t use the trans, either,” said Do-Wop. “In fact, I’m 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, let’s 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 Rot’n‘art as a lifeline of communications.
Sushi and Do-Wop must have taken a wrong turn in the winding alleyways of Rot’n‘art City-more likely, they’d taken a few wrong turns. Actually, that wasn’t 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. They’d pretty much given up on trying to follow the map they’d gotten at the spaceport. Once they’d 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 couldn’t 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.
They’d finally decided just to find a major street, in hopes of spotting one of the city’s 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. “That’s got to be a major intersection,” he told Do-Wop, tugging on his partner’s sleeve and pointing.
“Yeah, or maybe somethin’s on fire,” said Do-Wop. Having grown up in a blighted urban environment, he was well aware that bright lights weren’t always good news.
“Even if it is, there’ll be people there,” said Sushi. “We can ask directions. Come on!” For some reason, they’d seen almost nobody on the streets. The few they’d seen had either avoided them or, like the ragged man they’d 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 they’d seen. They’d 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.
They’d found people, all right. What they hadn’t counted on was finding themselves in the middle of an incipient riot.
For the moment, the center of the crowd’s attention was a wiry, wild-haired man standing on an overturned hover-car, exhorting the crowd through some kind of portable amplifier.
“What’s 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 side’s the one to go with.” Beyond the barrier the “Greebfap!” chant was building, settling into a rhythm.
“You think it’s fun getting your head beaten in, or being knocked down and stomped on? I’ll take a rain check,” said Sushi. “These cops have got body armor and helmets, in case you didn’t notice.”
“Yeah, yeah, the cops always have that stuff,” said Do-Wop, peering over the barricade. “These guys don’t 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. “Don’t worry, Soosh, they missed ya by a mile. Cops never could hit a moving target.”
Sushi’s face turned pale. “So why aren’t 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 wouldn’t care. In most circumstances, Sushi wouldn’t have cared, either. But in most circumstances, a violation of Legion regulations wouldn’t 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 he’d been doing. Then again, if he’d broken a few regulations at some Legion base, he’d at least have a chance to talk his way out of whatever trouble he was in. Somehow, he didn’t get the impression that the Rot’n‘art 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, he’d checked into the Rot’n‘art 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. He’d 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 Rot’n’art, 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 couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
Eventually, having decided that the crowd wasn’t 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 hadn’t he answered Phule’s 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 butler’s). There were a few historic buildings that one could tour, none of which struck him as likely to command anyone’s 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 who’d been to a real planet recently. And Phule couldn’t 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, he’d 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 Lopez’s music, and endured about seven seconds of it before deciding that Beeker probably wasn’t 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 butler’s, 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,” Rot’n‘art was revealing itself to be a surprisingly dull place. Could he be completely mistaken in thinking he knew Beeker’s tastes and interests?
Phule added the note to a list of questions for Sodden. He’d 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 didn’t 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-Brain’s screen once more.
It was late by the time he turned out the lights.