Jack walked to the balcony and stood looking out over a plain that the Pendorians had admitted had no name. Just a number. A location. 0,21x42,76. Jack had memorized it. It was important to know where one was, after all. Where one stood.
Which was more than he could say about his relationship with the Human girl they had given him as a guide. She was the most perplexing creature, he had to admit. Lovely enough that he wasn't completely comfortable talking to her. Such women never wanted to talk to him on Earth. He had become a real adventurer, once, because he wanted to attract women. Now he knew that he had become an adventurer to get away from the world that had women in it. He preferred to be alone. He liked it that way.
But the view here was magnificent. Plains like this did not exist on much of Earth. One had to travel to Canada or perhaps some segments of the Soviet Union to see untrammeled stretches of open land like this. He had shot a single roll of film just to get a feel for this land. And to think that there was so much of Pendor unseen by Human eyes. The Pendorians had promised Geographic aid in visiting and representing the surface of Io, Ganymede, Mars. Jack wanted to be a part of the future where Geographic was taking pictures of every corner of the universe. The Pendorians had given him that opportunity.
It was too bad that he didn't like them.
"Jack, Atalie would like to know if you're ready to go out."
Jack looked up at the ceiling, a gesture he had seen the Pendorians use to address the AIs. The voice had come from somewhere to his left rather than overhead, but still Jack looked up. "Yeah, I'm ready," he said slowly. "Ready as I've ever been."
He walked to the door and shouldered his vest loaded only with the electronic camera that the Pendorians had provided him with. No sense in being limited by film when these things had clearer lenses, took better pictures, had more effective zooms and never ran out of film. Part of him missed the ritual of film care. But the better part of him knew not to worry about it. The people back home would get the important stuff. The pictures. That was his job. It was what he had been sent here to do.
The door opened to reveal Atalie. He was the only one among the Terrans to get a Human guide. He wondered what he had done to deserve the privilege. She was of average appearance as Pendorians go. As Humans go she would get more than her fair share of attention. That was one of the things he had noticed on Pendor. Ugly seemed to be as rare as unicorns. More, even, since he had seen unicorns on Pendor.
"Where are we going today?" she asked.
"I am going for a hike in the Rocchodain. Lisanne is looking in the far woods and Christiane is checking out the locals. I want pictures of where you all live."
Atalie looked puzzled. "But I live here," she said, pointing down at the floor. "Not in the High Inn, but you know what I mean."
"I suppose I do. Do you never go out into the woods? Walk around, take a look at what there is to see?"
"I have people like you to do that for me," she said with a smile. Jack frowned, and she returned the frown. "Something wrong?"
"I was just wondering where the Pendorian sense of curiosity went." He stepped passed her and walked towards the SDisk. He felt some alarm at being in a building with only one exit, a building that was dependent on a steady supply of power, and one that would kill everyone inside if that power failed. But the Pendorians assured him that Shardik's home had been up for decades without a failure and that the levels of redundancy built into any floating building were so great as to make such fears absurd.
"Mine went into you, Jack," she replied with a grin. "Besides, don't you like me?"
"I like you well enough," he said, reminding himself that he had come here to keep his hands busy taking pictures rather than seducing the natives. There was something in the Pendorian demeanor that made him uneasy, something unhealthy about their acceptance of things the way they were. "Anyway, I have my link," he said, holding up the small device the size of a large calculator. "I'll call you if I need help."
She nodded, her own expression fallen as he walked away. Jack swore under his breath. He was not obligated to her. She was doing her job well enough. He stood on the SDisk, already comfortable with this technology, and said, "Take me down."
The sun blazed bright overhead. Even with his wide-brim hat he winced at the brightness of it. Such brightness early in the morning had to be unhealthy for someone. He wasn't sure how the Pendorians had adapted. But they had well enough. The sun at high noon all day long was one of the worst things about Pendor.
He looked around. The town of Rocchodain was, in their own words, one of the most modern. It had brick-lined roads and brick-finished buildings. The brick came in multiple hues of red and brown, giving the town a festive appearance. A fountain, a simple geometric fountain that would not have been out of place somewhere in Rome splashed water promiscuously in the middle of the town. The town square was actually circular with the road extending for about a half-mile in either direction. There were no power lines. It could have been a set out of a picture book and Jack mused that that may well have been from where the town's designers took their cues. A motorcycle hummed by slowly, its electric motor making almost no sound at all. The rider waved peacefully.
Jack waved in response and turned about, heading towards the sea. It was a day's walk if one stuck to the road. He had no intention of doing so. He was going to walk to Incorporation Field, as the Pendorians called it, and keep going. The link, he had learned, would lead him to the nearest SDisk if he asked it to and there seemed to be SDisks hidden in odd places within the territory.
He followed the footpath along level ground for six miles or so, not far at all, through absolutely sylvan woods of beautiful, tall stands of oak and pine that must have grown without Human intervention for centuries. He nibbled on a handful of the trail mix he had picked up yesterday, still feeling odd after these months that he didn't have to pay for anything. He understood how it worked, at least somewhat, but there was something wrong with the lack of exchange or at least the inequity of it. Still, as Lisanne had pointed out to him, "Why would anyone want green slips of paper in exchange for food?"
The path was well-maintained by a loving hand and was wide enough for two Centaurs to walk side-by-side but was clearly not meant for vehicular traffic. He broke out into a wide, rectangular field that showed few signs of recent use although he had been assured by Atalie that the field had never been busier. There had been several releases just recently although one of them, the Dolphins, had not been conducted here, obviously.
There was a whirl of grass in one corner which Jack took as a sign of recent vehicular traffic. The hill sloped gently at an angle and Jack could see twelve large posts at the highest corner. He took out his camera and started taking pictures. This was what the people back home wanted to see, he thought with a grin. There's nothing here to see but this is the place where Pendorians are made. Or 'decanted,' as they say. He was sure that Xing would get pictures of the actual factory. Maybe he could get a copy of the warranty?
He chuckled to himself. After a few hundred clicks of the camera he put it away and continued on his journey spinward. There was a trail here, too, although it was smaller and less distinct; a foot trail used only by the locals, not by the people who did the decanting.
He walked on for several hours more taking more pictures as he went along. The trail was well-tended if not well-used. It started to go up and he crossed several streams, stopping at each one to take a drink. He had been assured by the Pendorians that there were no local equivalents to cryptosporidia to give him a surprise. He could drink the water without fear.
He crossed over a low ridge that was part of what the Pendorians referred to as "The Rocchodain Mountains," although here they were little more than a collection of hefty hills. He had seen the map though, where they ran in two parallel ridges for tens of thousands of miles. One the far side of the second ridge from where Jack stood lay the ocean, and on that side there was a segment hundreds of miles long that was as flat as a tabletop. That quality gave it its name, "Marbletop Ridge."
As far as he knew there was nothing to stop him from getting there in one day. He had planned on climbing up to the Marbletop and getting some picture of the Great Ocean.
The air was crisp and cool. It wasn't quite what he was used to but it was comfortable.
Realizing that it had been a few hours since he had taken his last picture he unlumbered the camera and aimed it down into the vale that separated the two ridges. It couldn't have been more than five kilometers in width but it was filled with open spaces and meadows. From where he stood her could clearly see a single, straight cut in the treeline running parallel to his course. The Spinward March, the Pendorians called it, although nobody quite knew what the name referred to. It went all the way from Shardik Castle at one end, past Rocchodain, on through a vast mix of wildernesses and climates until it reached the Tangent Arcology.
But he was here at this end of the road to take pictures. He panned the camera across the terrain before him, watching for anything that might be interesting to the people back home. Panoramas were all fine and good but he knew that he had to find something more. Not necessarily today, but soon. He wondered how the editors back on Earth were taking all the data they were being sent.
He had the zoom turned down when a glint caught his eye. He turned the camera back to it and tried to find it again. As he did, he found two Pendorians, two Centaurs, one male and one female, walking through a meadow unconcerned about anything. Walking just a few yards behind them was a menacing, metallic lion done entirely in hues of polished silver and gold which waved its head back and forth as if sniffing the air for something. The presence of the robot, which he took to be a security measure, made him wonder if he was in any danger. There were wolves and similar creatures out here he had been told but so far he had seen little sign of anything larger than a badger.
He watched them through the camera, occasionally snapping an illicit photo, as they sat on the ground and ate lunch. He heard his own stomach growl and fished out one of the sandwiches he had brought with him. Momentarily putting the camera aside, he ate in silence.
It was, he reflected, a strange culture that allowed a man to walk out of a city and in less than half a day be so far away from civilization that there were no power lines to see, no airplanes to hear, no factories to smell. He didn't know if there was any part of the Earth where one could do just that. Maybe Siberia. Or Alaska.
He ate more of the trailmix and drank from his bottle. He needed to find a stream soon to refill it. He picked up the camera and searched for the couple he had been spying on earlier.
He found them. Kissing. The male, a blond fellow up front with a white-haired horse's body, was fondling the female, his hand up her blousy, open shirt. When he pulled back for some air Jack could see that he was a black-haired beauty with a cream-white body, breasts like grapefruit and a smile that could blind. They went back to their ardour.
Jack watched, fascinated, as they tossed aside their shirts and played on the grass. He found himself breathing a little quicker as he watched the male roll over in the grass, the fem with hands and forelegs pulling herself over to his massive erection. She took it in both hands-- it needed both hands-- and stroked it, kissed it, licked at it with her tongue along its massive length. It was only slightly smaller than her arm, and the head flared into a massive knob that Jack thought looked surprisingly like a pale, fleshy gasline filter from an old car.
The mel Centaur was clearly enjoying what she was doing, because his body writhed on the ground with every movement of her hands and every kiss of her tongue. Jack clicked more photos as she rolled over onto her belly, squat on the ground, and the mel took up position behind her. They seemed to have trouble achieving penetration, but obviously he managed to get inside her because his whole body sunk on top of hers. Jack panned back to her face to see her eyes shut and a smile of need on her lips.
The mel was a vigorous example of his species, and as he wrapped his arms around her torso and humped away at her, Jack found his right hand straying down to his own pants to hold the lump that had swollen there. Without even thinking about it, he unzipped himself and pulled out his painfully hard erection. As the Centaurs made love he stroked himself, trying to keep the camera steady with the other hand even as he approached climax. The two down in the valley were obviously enjoying themselves; although they were too far away from him to hear, the desire on their faces told him all he needed to know. They were close and so was he.
He came first, leaving his seed on the ground, watching as the two down below came as well. He snapped more pictures as the male withdrew his massive shaft from within her. Even on a body as large as hers Jack wondered where he could hide such a thing. He supposed that it didn't matter much; apparently they had succeeded.
As he watched through the camera, he could see an odd expression of regret on the fem's face and the male obviously trying to soothe her. It wasn't guilt as far as Jack could see. He doubted that Pendorians experienced post-coital guilt. He would probably never know what it was about.
He shook himself and cleaned himself up. He knew that some of the pictures stored in his camera would never see the light of day in Geographic but he'd have them pressed into some kind of transportable media to take home to Terra. He knew of at least one person who he could sell them to and he assured himself it wasn't really bestiality if they were both intelligent, thinking creatures.
A flash went off overhead. He looked up only to see a wide, straight shadow progressing across the field. He hadn't thought he been out that long but that had to have been the first flash of night from the shadow ring.
He pulled out his link and opened the clamshell that covered the display. "Take me to the nearest SDisk." The display lit up and an arrow pointed in a direction back the way he had come. A distance of 625 meters was illustrated on the bottom.
He followed its directions to a large, flat stone no more than knee high that sat in the middle of a clearing. He had been told Pendorians like to hide their teleporters as natural formations and this was clearly one of them. He stepped onto it. "Take me back to my hotel." The forest vanished.