Alka sighed and stretched out on the floor of her cabin, lying on the traditional Uncia bed she had come to prefer to the elevated platforms many Pendorians used, even Felinzi. She had learned from her trip to Terra that the bed she used was more like that of a group of people known as Asian, and she had come to wonder how much of the Uncia mindset had been programmed by conceptions and perhaps misconceptions of that mindset.
This had led to her current assignment. Care of the human called Xing Kanorak, the Chinese representative of the Geographic expedition to Pendor. She had counted on an interesting assignment and had hoped to learn something from Xing about China and its ways. She had been reading Confucius recently in a Chinese edition, and had moved on to Meng Tzu and Mo Tzu, one the inheritor of Confucius's teachings and the other his rival. Lao Tzu was fascinating; Chuang Tzu, on the other hand, was a mess. She had learned a lot from all them.
From Xing, though, she had learned very little. He was a quiet man, she had learned. He also carried with him a profound sadness that hung on his shoulders like an unwanted coat to be carried home even after the day had grown hot. She could not understand him, try as she might to talk with him. She knew that he woke up at night, sometimes screaming, but he would not talk about it. Jamie, the ship's AI, would not tell her more than that.
She had decided to try another route after talking to Trellin, Ms. Suttprathana's guide. She still felt as unsure of herself as a tliel out of the tanks. Steeling herself against his reproachful eye and his intimate barriers, she waved her hand in front of the doorplate.
The door opened. "Hello," he said politely. He was significantly shorter than she, with thin black hair that fell about his face like unruly wire. He wore an unremarkable ensemble of a collared pullover and denim pants. He even wore socks, although he had learned from the crew not to wear shoes. In the low-gravity portions of the ship one needed her toes.
"Jamie says you wanted to see me," she began. That in itself had been remarkable. After three months on board Xing rarely, if ever, expressed an interest in her visiting him for any length of time. He was dismissive towards her, always wrapped in his melancholy. Wolf had described Xing as a 'wet blanket,' the weight of which dragged at whomever was around.
He blinked up at her. For the first time in many visits he seemed lively. He actually smiled. "Jamie says we're stopping to transfer fresh meats and vegetables on board from another ship. I'd like to see this other ship. Can you arrange it?"
Jamie? Can I?
Captain says it's fine. The Ranch is clear already so you can go over if you like. You're free to use the disks.
She returned to where he was and said, "If you like, we can go now."
"Allow me to get my camera, then." He turned around and grabbed a black, rectangular bag. She watched as he carefully checked his equipment. It seemed to her that here was a pleasure he was ready to indulge in, one that seemed at odds with the dark clouds that pursued him. He looked up at her, anticipation on his face, and she felt an honest smile creep into her muzzle. "I am ready."
"Let's go, then." She led him around the corridor, up a spire, and into a room that previously had been off-limits to the Terrans. They hadn't intended on revealing this technology to the Terrans at quite this stage, but there was little helping it. If Xing was going to get to see the axolotl ranch they were going to have to use the SDisks.
As he walked in, he eyed the single white disk inlaid on the floor with suspicion. She grinned and gestured for him to join her. He did so cautiously. "Is this what I think it is?" he asked.
"Jamie, we're ready."
The room blinked. The room they ended up in was different only in color from the room they had left. She was grateful to Hahpi for equalizing the pressure in the two rooms before they had left. Xing was staring at her, his eyes wide. "Teleportation?"
"Transposition is what the techies call it. Two objects of equal volume can be transposed between locations. I don't understand a word of how it works, and apparently the energy it takes is massive, but we use them for almost everything. They transport fluids very efficiently, though, which makes them very useful for some systems." She grinned. "But you need two of them to make it work."
"So you can't just send someone somewhere?"
"No, you need a pair to do the tranposing."
Xing nodded.. He pulled out his camera and began snapping pictures of the room, even if it was little more than a nondescript cube with an an emergency life support closet. She led him towards the door.
It opened onto what looked like a long room that disappeared into the distance for the curvature of the spacecraft. The ceiling was very low, barely enough for her to stand up straight, and neither of them nearly approached two meters in height. But for a single, narrow walkway the floor was covered with plant beds, now empty and dark. It was apparent from the low lighting and empty beds that no growing was underway in here. Alka knew a little about gardening. "I think this soil has been exhausted and we don't have the proper seeds to do rotation. So this is the last phase before we land on Pendor. When we get there, the contents of this ship will be scattered over a mid-intensity forest where it'll go into being seedbed for future generations."
She watched with amusement as he depleted a roll of film just taking pictures of what was, to her, an empty room. She tried to appreciate it from his point of view. It was probably not a new idea to Terrans that for long voyages into space they would have to bring their own crops and grow them, but they had probably never before seen it put into practice before. She supposed that it would sell magazines when he got home.
She led him along the walkway to a ladder that ran up into the core of the ship. "Follow me," she said.
She started up the ladder, assuming confidently that he would follow. She had worn a skirt today with no underthings and wondered if he would take the opportunity she had presented him. She hoped so. Anything to get him out of that funk he carried with him.
She reached the intersection. The apparent acceleration here was about a third of Pendorian normal. "This is where we grow the meat, on this floor. You're not squeamish, are you, Xing?"
She watched his eyes as he considered her question. He seemed to be trying to remember something, but finally he just shook his head and said, "No, I am not."
"Good. Because the room I'm about to show you could be found in some of your horror movies." She opened the door and led him in.
Inside, four rows of plexiglass tubes stood empty and silent. The rows stretched down the hallway, again disappearing from sight against the curvature of the vessel. Each tube was large enough to hold a full-size cow carcass, although at the moment all they appeared to have within them was a plastic replica of a bovine skeleton. "You grow the meat in those?" he said even as he again primed the camera flash.
"That's right. That's why I said the meat isn't the best. It's not naturally grown, but directed by an advancement of the healing growth process. So it all tastes the same and it's all under-exercised. Some people claim that makes the meat more tender, but I think it's missing some of the flavor of the meat with all that." She grinned. "And I should know."
He snapped more pictures, going down the rows. "I take it an AI runs this? It is very clean in here."
"Of course. Hahpi, are you there?"
"Always. Hello, Alka. You are looking well."
She looked up at the ceiling. "You don't even know who I am."
"No," the AI agreed, "but I know what Jamie thinks of you, and I trust her opinions usually."
Xing followed her lead and looked up at the ceiling. "Hahpi. Is that a Pendorian name?"
There was a chuckle from nowhere. "Pendorian names are all fictional constructs," the AI replied mysteriously. "AI names especially so. No, my name comes from an Egyptian fertility god, one who made the waters of the Nile rise and bring life to the surrounding cities. Since that is the role' I am playing in this mission, it is the name I have taken for the time being. I do not keep a permanent name, an unusual thing for a Pendorian, but AIs in general are unusual beings."
"Thank you for explaining it to me," he said. He was so earnest at the non-explanation that Alka couldn't help but laugh. The sound apparently alarmed him and she tamped down on it as quickly as she could.
"What else is there to see?" he asked.
"Well, there's the sewage system. It's still running, cleaning up the last of the waste products. It's a highly efficient system; we don't use any complex artificial chemicals in these farms and the amount of power we have available allows us to render our waste material sterile. I imagine it stinks in there right now."
"It does," Hahpi confirmed. "And it's hot. I would not recommend the visit."
"We could show you the seed storage and materials cargo areas. Some are accessible."
"I would like that. Does this ship have a bridge or is it intended to be fully automated?"
Hahpi answered. "It does not have a bridge. That was removed after its construction. I am an independent entity, the first of my kind I understand, a spacefaring robot."
"I didn't know that," Alka said, surprised. "Congratulations!"
"Thank you!" Hahpi responded. "I don't imagine I will do this for long. I wish to return to Pendor and my Nixie shell."
"Nixie?" Xing asked.
"Underwater version of, well, this. A robotic shell. She's a construction unit."
"Independent, loner, and proud of it." Hahpi's pride came through with every syllable. "That's why I was asked to do this job. But I'm not a spacer. I can do it, but I don't enjoy it enough to come back to it soon."
"I see," Xing said.
"Come on," Alka said. "I'll show you the cargo holds."
"You came," Alka said, looking up at Xing. He was dressed in better clothes than usual, and he had shaved. "Thank you."
"After the tour you gave me this afternoon, it is all I could do to return the favor." He took the seat she indicated. A male Tindal approached out of nowhere, deposited two glasses of water, and disappeared. "What is this place?"
"The best restaurant in three light years," Alka replied.
Xing glanced at the room. There were but four tables, each large enough only for two people, tightly packed into a small room. A single door led off to what he assumed to be the kitchen. "It is probably the only restaurant in three light years," Xing observed.
"I think one of the other ships has one. But I assure you that this is the best one in three light years. The alternative is that it's the worst one." She gestured for him to sit down. "I wouldn't invite you to the worst one. So, have you told your friends about the other ship? And the SDisk system?"
Xing nodded. "They were surprised by the transportation system, but they seemed more impressed by the fact that I had managed to get into the other ship." He glanced around. "But you didn't invite me here to talk about work."
"In a way, I did. I wanted you to sample some of the fare that we cook using the fresh slaughter from Hahpi's ship, and I wanted to talk about work. My work." The waiter brought soup.
"May I ask you a question, Alka? How do these people, the ones who run this 'restaurant,' get paid?"
"They don't. Not in the sense that you think, Xing. They get paid simply by having something to do. When you live as long as we do, having something to do is an important thing to have. Besides, it's embedded in our instincts to contribute to the society around us. Your instincts program you to be both a social creature and a loner, to be part of a successful community and to look out for your own interests within it. Our instincts allow us to get much more pleasure in just being seen doing right by the community. And unlike your culture, we have to see it and be seen doing it. We can't accumulate symbols of success, like money or power; they don't work for us. They literally do not register. We understand how they work for Terrans, and we've even begun to understand why they work. But we could never be like that. What you think of as retirement would just be agony for us."
"I will try to understand you better, then," he said. "So these people are being paid in, what?"
"Respect," Alka replied. "Even if none of us ever encounter any of them again, the AIs remember who they are, and can communicate that to others who may want to work with them." Alka ate her soup with an oversize spoon, and Xing followed along. Although he didn't recognize the particular recipe, he did recognize hints of coriander, ginger, anise, and especially cilantro.
Their empty bowls were removed, and their water glasses filled. "You said you wanted to talk about your job?"
"I know you think that I'm here to keep you from seeing things that we don't want you to see, but that's really not the case, Xing. I'll take you anywhere you want to go, and if you insist, I'll let you get yourself irradiated, evacuated, and other unpleasant ways to end your life. It's my job to be your guide, not your handler. We are not in China." She paused to marshal her thoughts. "But I'm also here to help you if you're having other problems. To be your friend, if you'll let me. Jamie told me that you're having trouble sleeping, that you wake up at night screaming. If you'll let me, I'd like to help you. Or, at least, understand you. Jack thinks there's something very wrong with you; a member of the Geographic should be enthusiastic about his tasks, especially one as significant as this. But you're not. You mope around, you don't talk to anyone else, you barely get up the interest to take pictures."
Dinner plates were placed in front of them, helping him to avoid the conversation. "We must eat," he said. Alka tried to hide her disappointment as they ate. The main meal was as excellent as the soup, and she noted that Xing's plate was slightly more sparse than her own, a nod to his more efficient metabolism.
When they were done and dinner cleared away, the waiter poured two glasses of wine and left them alone in the quiet room. They were the only two people there that evening. Xing picked his up and tasted it, smiled, and took a mouthful. It was one of the first smiles Alka had seen since they had left Earth orbit. "My offer?"
"Alka, what happens if you fail me? If you fail to be a good guide and we have a falling out over something and you end up going back to Pendor without your assignment?"
Alka was taken back by the question. "I don't really know. We've never had an issue like this before. I was asked to go by the staff because they had assessed that I was most qualified for this work with you. Anyone else assigned would be second-best, I guess, but it might reflect on me that I couldn't adapt. Why?"
Xing nodded his head to one side in a sort of shrug. "I just wanted to make sure I was not indebted to you if you were to lose your job. It would seem that your people understand honor the way we once did in our golden ages."
"Xing, this is about being practical."
"Indeed," he said. He rose from the table. "Excuse me." He left in what seemed to Alka to be a great hurry, leaving her behind.
She tried to fight the tears forming in her eyes. She didn't succeed.
Jamie's voice cut through her sleep like a knife, waking her instantly. "Lights," she said as she sat up, looking around bewilderedly at her room. "What time is it?"
"Eleven twenty," the AI announced calmly. "I know. It is very late. But Xing is at your door."
Alka glanced around the room, suddenly wide awake. It was passable for visitors. "Give me a minute." She grabbed a simple robe and tied it about her body. "Let him in."
The door opened. Xing stood there, looking across at her, his eyes red-rimmed with a lack of sleep. Or was it tears? Whatever it was, he had come to her for a reason and she was determined not to fail him. "Come in," she said, stifling a yawn.
"Thank you. I was afraid you would not want to see me at this hour. Not after I stood you up like that."
"It's what I do," she said. She had a small cabin without chairs or tables. She indicated a place on the floor, and he took a seat. She recovered a hot pot of tea and two cups, and offered him one.
He accepted. "No, it is what you want to do. But I know that I hurt you by leaving you. I do not mean to hurt you, Alka. But..." He paused. "I feel I cannot work with you if I do not tell you the truth."
"The truth?" she asked. Suddenly she wondered if Xing was less photographer and more government official, sent to ferret out the "state secrets" of Pendor, whatever those were.
He was a long time before speaking. Finally, he said, "Four months before I agreed to this assignment, my wife called me to tell me that she was pregnant. I thought that was wonderful, that we would have a family soon. But then my wife told me that she had already scheduled an abortion. The child was going to be a girl."
Alka gasped. Pregnancy termination was permitted on Pendor but it was also terribly rare. There were so few people to begin with, and contraception was so effective, that the concept of an "unwanted pregnancy" was almost unheard of. Even when the mother realized after the birth that she was ill-prepared to deal with a child, something which happened surprisingly often on Pendor, there were enough people who wanted to raise children that the Gift Child system ensured they were all wanted one way or another. Horrified, she finally managed to rasp out, "I had heard that that happens. In your country."
Xing merely looked down. "I did not think it would happen to me. Yodo was a very strong woman who often got her way. Her ambition was to be the head of a strong and prosperous household. She could not do that if she did not have a son. If we were lucky enough, or rich enough, to afford the taxes the state would put on us for a second child, she might have let a girl live. But not as firstborn. I did not want her to kill the child. I loved Yodo too much; I could not bear the thought of her killing anything that came from her.
"Yodo went to the hospital despite my pleading and my angry words. On the way home, however, she and fourteen others were killed in an accident. The bus they were in lost a tire when going over a bridge. They fell into the river and drowned. It was a bus she rode often. It could have happened on any day. But now she is gone, and our last words were hateful to each other." He sat, his knees drown up to his chest, and began to cry. "And now I have no family, no wife, and no daughter. That is why I agreed to this trip. I wanted to get away from Earth."
"From your hurt," Alka said.
"Yes, that too," Xing replied. "But I have carried Yodo and Ping with me."
"Ping? Is that what you wanted to name your little girl?"
Xing nodded. "I do not know what she would have been like, but it would have been wonderful to have a family. I wanted that family. And now it is all gone." He sobbed again. "All gone."
Alka reached out and touched him on his shoulder. Xing reacted with a shrug. She ignored him, instead crawling around behind him, hugging him to her. Finally, he capitulated to her persuasion and cried against her shoulders. She held him through the night, even as he cried himself to sleep. Jamie lowered the lights even as Alka laid him out on the sleeping mat. She tossed her blanket over him. As silently as possible she pulled out another mat and curled up next to her charge.
In the morning, she awoke to find Xing sitting beside her, one leg drawn up to his chest. He was watching her intently. "How long have you been awake?"
"Only a short time," he assured her. "I wanted thank you for the place to sleep last night. I did not have the dream, which is a first for me. Thank you."
"You're welcome, I guess. I'm not sure I did anything."
"You did enough," he replied. "You listened. I had not told anyone about Yodo since the accident. The news about her came to me by telegram from some officials. Now someone else knows and understands."
"'Knows,' yes. But I might never really understand the depth of your pain, Xing. Death, and abortion are rare on my world. I may not know what you're going through until I lose a loved one." She looked up. "I may not ever know."
"Just that same, you have some knowledge now." He reached out and touched her hand. "And I would like you to stay on as my guide."
She grinned. "Thanks."
"Thank you," he said. "Let us see if we can make this adventure interesting."
"I'm sure we will."