The Warriors of Silence – Chapter 1

The Warriors of Silence
by Pierre Bordage
translated from the French by Kirk McElhearn
Copyright Pierre Bordage 1993-2004

Chapter 1

The was a persistent rumor on the planet Two-Seasons, a rumor that returned as often as the rain, suggesting that the wet season was coming to its end.

Slumped in a chair so old and dusty that the light of its tubes merged with the half-light of the agency, Tixu Oty, originally from the planet Orange, watched the heavy drops fall with the look of a divine cow contemplating an antique rocket train.

During the five, maybe six standard years that he had been on Two-Seasons, Tixu Oty had slowly changed into a shaggy, lifeless mass, soaked through with alcohol and boredom. A sickening stench oozed from his crumpled uniform, which had once been light green, and its pungency was reminiscent of the giant river lizards of the rainy season.

Frightened by his grim look, the rare customers who had the incongruous idea of opening the broken door of the agency stayed just long enough to mumble a quick apology. What impression could these unfortunate travelers have of the ILTC, the largest transfer company in the known and unknown universe! The ILTC with its thousands of agencies scattered over the hundreds of planets of the Naflin Federation, even on the outlying planets of the Marches. The all-powerful ILTC which had managed to achieve an almost total monopoly over long distance cellular transfers, thanks to ad campaigns with sensational slogans, as well as a bit of political and financial scheming.

Somewhere, within his swamp of indifference, Tixu knew that an inspobot appointed by the decisional college would eventually pay him a visit. He would have to provide some explanations when this occurred. Management did not neglect any of the agencies, even those that were near the limits of the recorded universe. The absolute minimum – and one, which, if it happened, would be the result of a great deal of luck – was that he would be purely and simply fired like the slob he had become. This was an optimistic hypothesis, but it was merely a reflection of an unconscious desire.

As logic would have it, he would be more likely to stand trial before the Company’s Internal Ethics Court, where his countless incidents of professional misconduct would be solemnly exhumed. For good measure – and since the rainy season never comes just once – they would add a few minor trifles to the list; things he had nothing to do with. The ILTC was not used to playing around with their corporate image, and never missed a chance to make an example of someone. He risked being convicted to ten, or even fifteen years of recycling-workshop, at a repair and testing center located on the planet Russk. He would have the choice there of either being a test pilot for the new machines designed by the Company’s engineers (death rate: 30.3%), or working on the irradiated fault detection line (death rate: 26.7%).

Nevertheless, through an extraordinary effort of non-will, Tixu had managed to drive this entire little world from his non-thoughts: the Airain Charter, the Company’s internal manual, on which he had pledged an oath on during the enthronement ceremony, the rules, and their never-ending sub-paragraphs a) and b), the inspobots and their lexicons of cellular inventories, the customer-is-always-right, the unenviable fate that awaited him… From now on, the only thing that counted was when he heard the hostess’ artificial voice, on the internal channel, announcing the standard closing time for all of the agencies in zone 1O98-A of the Marches.

Driven by a conditioned reflex, Tixu would then type the confidential code for the deremat room on the old keyboard, push the lever that controlled the magnetic protection shutters, lift his carcass from his seat and leave the agency, always forgetting to turn off the antique holographic sign that had been missing two of its four letters for eons. This was probably the worst kept travel agency in the known and unknown universe.

Walking haltingly, Tixu penetrated the city’s intertwining network of dark twisting streets. Then he went up on to the jumble of high footbridges, set up in rainy weather, that crossed over the ponds, streams, rivers, all those liquid spaces whose broken mirrored surfaces reflected dreary rays of light from light bubbles buffeted by the wind. From time to time, a dozen-meter long carnivorous river lizard shot up in a sudden bubbling of foam. Its light yellow scales and its tiny ruby red eyes burst into the grayness, its mouth opened showing a triple row of razor-sharp teeth, its tail whipping the surface of the water with a vengeance.

It often happened that a local citizen, drunk or in a feverish delirium, would be blown from a footbridge by a gust of wind. There was no way out: there was always a lizard prowling in the area; one that would throw itself on the poor victim without further ado (death rate: 100%).

Tixu would sometimes spend a few minutes watching one of these aquatic monsters, making sure that he was holding fast to the upper rope of the handrail. Not that he cared more about living than anything else, but he just held on to what he could, and in this case it was a rope. The natives of Two-Seasons, the Sadumbas, claimed, with a straight face, that the river lizards were water deities. Before the massive arrival of the colonists from the Federation, they would make offerings of a few of their newborn as a sacrifice. In spite of the Federal law protecting ethnic plurality and the respect for local customs, the Federal Interlice had forbidden this age-old practice, which was judged to be degrading, barbarian, and contrary to the ideals of an enlightened society.

Tixu passed a few vague shapes, some silhouettes who were paying attention to keeping their balance on these unsteady, slippery wooden planks. Even though the rain was lashing his face, it had not yet managed to awaken him from his torpor. Tixu’s feet led him toward the only bar in the city, a simple hut sitting on top of tall slim piles, which did not inspire much confidence. Under its crumbling sign, a bit of collapsed terrace seemed irresistibly attracted to the swirling waters of a stream below. This was probably the worst kept bar in the known and unknown universe.

Every evening, Tixu would come and help swell the dense ranks of the mumbë drinkers. Mumbë, the local alcohol, was an indeterminate blend of acid and poison, which was rotgut for anyone of normal constitution. Tixu would empty glass after glass without uttering a word, and without glancing either in front of him or behind. The others, either leaning on the bar or sprawled over the rustic tables, also drank in silence. Their glossy bloodshot eyes stared into the void. The waiters, three brothers who came from the planet Red Spot, filled their glasses without any unnecessary remarks. Their greedy hands skillfully grabbed the small change on the duralumin bar.

The Three Brothers’ Tavern (that was what everyone called it, since no one had been able to make out the letters on the sign) was a hub for smugglers of red tobacco and adulterated alcohol from the Skoj, which had been put on the Index by the Federation one hundred sixty standard years before. From time to time, women with multicolored hair would pierce through the curtain of smoke and wander near the bar. Their wispy negligees gave a glimpse of their withered skin, their wilted shapes, their breasts uncomfortably defying the law of gravity, their legs sheathed in cellulite, their bald pubes… These prostitutes were at the ends of their careers, and could not afford esthetic youthing treatments; they sold themselves cheaply to optalium diggers, to sleazy functionaries, or to traveling salesmen passing through the sector.

It was during these dejected periods that Tixu gave in to the sad call of the flesh. The tricks were usually transacted in a room on the second floor, right in the middle of a swarm of buzzing aggressive black mosquitoes. These women were professionals worried about cost-effectiveness; they could get cash, erection, and ejaculation in less than thirty seconds. Each time, he was left with a queasy memory of the persistent odor of disinfectant that stunk up the stained mattress.

Sometimes, above the heads of the customers, snatches of conversation could be heard, words half pronounced, escaping thoughts.

censoreding rain! To think that this has been going on for more than twenty years… This dump should be called One-Season!”

“Yeah… And poor Morteen Olligrain, ending up the way he did. Eaten in his mine by a filthy lizard.”

“I told him not to dig so close to the water! No one has ever found any optalium near water, and anyway, you could see the ground was going to cave in.”

“He should have been less stubborn. They’re all like that, those half-breeds from Artilex! Always right!”

“Hey, you, Orangeman! As soon as I hit a good lode I’m comin’ to see you! You stick me in your damn machine and I’m home! And younger too!”

“Enough, Amigoet! A deremat transfer costs at least ten grand! And anyway, that story about getting younger is just a legend. You might get a couple of months out of it, but since your cells keep your biological age in memory, you’ll lose them right back. That’s what they call the Gloson correction effect, right Tixu?”

Tixu gave his mouth a little twist, which could be taken for a yes.

“Don’t laugh,” said the other one, insisting, “I’m telling you I’m near a good lode! The big one, old buddy!”

They came here to dig for optalium, a rare metal that was highly valued by the sculptor-jewelers of Bella Syracusa and the sacred craftsmen’s guilds of Marquinate. But the miners were ravaged by Zenoiba, the rainy season fever, an incurable disease. Their foreheads dripped with sweat, their skin was sallow, their teeth were loose, and they had crazy looks in their eyes. They had come from all over the universe, and you could spot them easily in their traditional outfits of thick brown cloth called tibu’shes. Their only hope: find enough money as quickly as possible to pay for a deremat transfer to their home worlds, so they could die there in peace. By an ordinary shuttle, it would take years, and they would not survive the trip. The old ships, from the period of the conquest, took six months, and sometimes even a year, to reach the major planets of the Federation. Not counting the dangers of pirates and shipwrecks.

“According to an estimate by specialists in geo-prospecting, the ground of Two-Seasons contains an incredible amount of white optalium…”

This terse wire report, picked up by some unimportant anchorman of a little-watched bubblevision channel, was enough to set off a mad rush. Independent miners took the planet by storm, killing one another to get the best concessions and squandering their skimpy savings to bring their heavy material: excavators, drills, proppers, extractors… But the never-ending rain, which filled the galleries with water and mud, the river lizards, and the Zenoibic insects, made the extraction of this precious ore more than difficult. The only thing the miners had extracted so far was that deadly raging fever which thwarted even the best medics from the FHO, the Federal Health Organization.

The more or less magic potions used by the Imas Sadumbas, the native sorcerers, were hardly more effective than the chemical, sonic, or undulatory cures that the FHO used. In addition, the Sadumbas themselves were seriously stricken by Zenoiba, since their immune systems were probably weakened by their poor hygiene and an overuse of mumbë. The natives of Two-Seasons had the habit of walking around entirely naked. The networks of their dark veins pushed through their hairless translucent skin, which was sickly-white. They were unintentionally defying a recent Federal decree, voted at the instigation of the Kreuzian Church of Syracusa, which required that all Federation citizens wear clothes. The Sadumbas couldn’t care less about decrees, whether they were ancient or recent. They wore a permanent expression of gloom and melancholy, which was in stark contrast to their round faces and their shapely bodies.

Some miners, the oldest and the sickest ones, claimed that the Sadumbas changed completely at the beginning of the dry season: their bodies became as dry as the tough skin of a shriveled person from Red-Spot, their pigmentary cells became colored with melanin to give them a nice brown skin color, and, above all, they became incredibly happy: singing, dancing, indulging in a permanent orgy that everyone was amicably invited to participate in. While waiting for these glorious days, which probably only existed in the hazy minds of the optalium diggers, the few specimens of male and female Sadumbas seated quietly in a corner of the barroom, glasses of mumbë in their hands, seemed to be reflecting on all the dark thoughts in the known and unknown universe.

As dependable as an antique pre-Naflin clock, a strange person came into the bar every evening at the same time. He was tall and pale, with a shock of surly red hair overflowing from the hood of his dirty, saffron-colored bodstocking full of holes; his face was all angles and sharp edges, his eyes sparkled under bushy eyebrows, and his long neck was emaciated like a vulture’s. His bony arm would unfold from within his crimson surplice, and his accusing finger would dominate the sputtering of the rain on the sheet metal roofs.

“You fiends of the Index! Alcohol has made you raskattas, outlaws! You are animals, lower on the evolutionary scale than the river lizards! A heap of stinking animals! Inferior beings enslaved by vice! The time will come when you will appear before the Kreuz, you will atone for your errors and you will be purified by fire! The time is near. Fear the Gehenna of the redeeming crosses: they will come to punish you for your insolence!”

Everyone calmly awaited the end of the storm. The Kreuzian missionary then turned toward the prostitutes, who were clearly taunting him by spreading their legs, licking their tongues on their red lips, or caressing their breasts.

“Cover yourselves, evil women! You putrid harlots! Your bearing is an insult to the divine Laissa, the mother of Kreuz! Your places are already reserved on the crucifires!”

His burning eyes wandered for a long while across the shadows in the smoke-filled room, his Adam’s apple piercing the wrinkled skin of his throat. Then he walked out like a sleepwalker and the prostitutes started chuckling as he walked by, both sarcastic and worried.

“The Kreuzian’s crazy as usual! It must be Zenoiba!”

“He thinks he’s going to scare us with his crucifires,” snickered one seated man.

“You’re wrong to laugh!” answered another who looked older than he really was. “These damn things exist, I’ve seen them!”

Every head turned toward the miner who was holding on to the bar with both hands, to keep his shaky legs from giving way. Worried, the prostitutes deserted their clients, and came and crowded around him.

“It goes back to the time when I had a concession on Julius, one of Syracusa’s moons. The Church of Kreuz is the official religion there, there’s no choice, and anyone who refuses to be converted is systematically sentenced to suffer the crucifire. I’ve seen entire families, husband, wife, and kids, burning slowly. It’s a disgusting sight.”

“You must be a censoreding Kreuzian,” yelled one guy, who had been made more aggressive by the mumbë. “Otherwise you would have burned like the rest of them!”

A murmur of approval greeted this comment that bore the stamp of common sense.

“I was!” said the miner. “On Julius I was a Kreuzian. It was either that or my life. And I like living! It may not be a great life, but it’s the only one I have! Now I’m as much a Kreuzian as you are a rich man!”

Everyone laughed. The prostitutes, now reassured, went back to the tables like a swarm of bees on a clump of flowers full of pollen. The silence slowly returned. The patrons’ brains drifted in the alcoholic haze. It was time to go to bed. It was a dangerous undertaking to confront the night, the rain, and the wind without falling from the swaying footbridges and becoming an impromptu dinner for the river lizards.

Tixu never remembered how he managed to find his way back to the boarding house. He usually did not have enough energy to put his feet on the gravitational platform, and fell asleep at the bottom of the staircase. It was the night watchman, a Sadumba decked out in a uniform jacket that was much too small for him, and a purely symbolic loincloth, who took care of the rest: he found the right door of the right room, located the bed among the indescribable mess, and placed the inert body on the mattress which gave off a repulsive odor of vomit, alcohol, and filth. Once this difficult task was finished, the night watchman would mutter a few stinging insults in his native lingo and leave. Each time, his feet would trip over the countless bottles lying on the floor, he would swear again, and close the door. Tixu would open one eye and catch a quick glance of a tremendous pair of white buttocks under a ridiculous black jacket, and then fall into a deep sleep that would show all the symptoms of a deep coma.

That morning, the smarmy voice of the hostess, who announced the wake-up call for all the employees of zone 1098-A of the Marches, was particularly unbearable to Tixu Oty. It felt as if each word that was spit out of the closed-circuit channel of the reverberator was a nanoscalpel cutting through his nerves.

The day watchman, a mute Trobloss, underpaid but dressed from head to toe, brought him breakfast: spicy Sadumba pastries and a strange thick piping hot drink that some people dared call coffee or even tea. The Trobloss yawned his head off, which was his own pleasant way of saying good morning. Tixu sat on the edge of his bed and answered with a small movement of his chin. The day watchman did not appreciate this lack of courtesy. He slammed the tray on the heap of clothes piled on the coffee table, and walked away.

Like every other morning, Tixu did not touch his breakfast, he did not take the time to wash up, even briefly; he unfolded his painful carcass and lunged into the hall. He crossed the lobby, muttered an inaudible apology to the scowling Trobloss, and went out into the street. Annoyed by the rain, the wind, and the permanent half-light that shrouded the city, he went straight to the agency.

During his rare periods of early morning sanity, he tried not to be noticed by the automatic comprehensive verification system, which would set off an immediate visit by an inspobot. Since his main worry was to keep this inevitable event from happening, he absolutely had to open the agency on time.

He pressed the activator on his personal resonator, which was stuck deep in a side pocket of his jacket. The sizzling bluish curtain of the force-fence faded away. He sat at his desk and typed in the confidential passcode to open the deremat, an old decrepit model, which offered, in addition to the journey, a few tiny inconveniences that the ILTC’s bubblevision advertisements neglected to mention.

Then, as an expert in the seated position and its many variations, he settled himself comfortably into the chair, sank into his usual torpor, and plunged into the contemplation of the raindrops dancing a sarabande on the clouded window. He soon fell asleep.

“Excuse me! Hello!”

Tixu lifted his head. The girl was standing in front of his desk. He had not heard the automatic doorbell when she came in. A reflex-thought flashed through his mind, A Syracusan! What the hell is a Syracusan doing in this dump?

Her sumptuous turquoise eyes, flecked with green and gold, fell on him with the grace of the music-birds of Organne, a province of Orange known for its extensive variety of wildlife. She carefully wrung out the two locks of hair that protruded from under the crimson edging of her white hood. She was dressed in a large cape of bright, changing colors, all of one piece, and made of a kind of fabric known as life-cloth, which was closed at the chest with a simple brooch of pink optalium. Her skin was of a gossamer-like paleness, her features were extremely graceful, her lips lined with white, and her movements were refined; everything about her betrayed her Syracusan origins, even the hint of arrogance in her poise and in the look in her eyes.

Tixu was frozen in his seat for a moment. Then, as if a spring loosened inside of him, he suddenly started arranging everything in the agency that needed urgent arranging: his slumped position, his shirt collar, his tangled hair, his uniform jacket, his belt, the wild mess on his desk, the unnecessary papers, all the things that were out of place. He tried to smile at the young lady, but, in doing so, he had the strange feeling of being stuck inside the skin of a white olphel, one of those domesticated monkeys that was especially good at making faces.

“Uh, good morning. Can I help you?”

The visitor gave an expression of subtle irony.

“I would like to travel. You do sell transfers, don’t you? Unless I have come to the wrong place…”

Tixu’s solar plexus felt the full force of her warm melodious voice. She, like most Syracusans, knew how to focus and aim it like a precisely concentrated sound wave.

“Uh, yes, of course, a transfer…” he mumbled, feeling out of breath. “Uh, maybe you’d like to sit down?”

“Yes, thank you, but where?”

“Excuse me. I’ll call the seat.”

Since he had violated rule 3c, paragraph 12, of the Traveler’s chapter of the internal manual (A potential customer should never stand while waiting), he had forgotten the very existence of the self-propelled chairs. Blushing, he pressed a rarely-used gray button on the lighted control panel. A light-chair of indescribable ugliness came out of a hatch that opened in the wall and, preceded by an exasperating grating noise, rolled out toward the visitor. She looked at the dust that had built up on the air cushion.

“I am greatly obliged, but I think I would rather stand. I believe that you sell trips by de- and re-materialization?”

“Deremats? Uh, yes, of course. You know, or maybe you don’t know, that you have just entered an agency of the ILTC, the largest transport company in the known and unknown universe. So I ask you, where else would you find a deremat if not here?”

Much to Tixu’s surprise, the words rushed out of his mouth. He usually just spit out a few threatening grumbles, whose goal was to test the clients’ strength of character. They would most often just go away, shamefaced, and resign themselves, in desperation, to giving three weeks of their lives to one of those regularly scheduled shuttles that made the trip between Two-Seasons and the other planets of the Marches.

“That’s fine. So I need a… a deremat, is that it? To go to Red Spot. I assume that you can handle that?”

“Red Spot?” said Tixu, surprised.

A new smile came over the visitor’s opaline lips. She seemed calm, distant, almost absent. The ability to control emotions was one of the most important subjects of Syracusan education. Faces and gestures should never betray feelings, especially in front of a stranger. As for Tixu, his eyes wide with astonishment were an abyss open on the desert of his soul.

“I am waiting for an answer! Is it possible or not?”

Tixu could make out the hint of anxiety coming through in her voice. He could also see the slight shaking of the life-cloth of her cape, caused by the nervous trembling of her leg.

“It’s possible, of course. Our programs can send travelers to all known worlds. It’s just that… Excuse me for butting into something that’s not my business, but what is a woman like you going to do on Red Spot? Please understand, this is the first time I have met a Syracusan in the Marches, and…”

She cut him off sharply, “What makes you think I am from Syracusa?”

“Hey, don’t get angry,” said Tixu spreading his arms. “I’m not trying to spy on you or get any information from you. I… uh, I’ve traveled a lot in my life and I can recognize a Syracusan, that’s all. You know what they say about Red Spot, don’t you?”

“I’ve heard about it, like everyone else. And that won’t change anything.”

“It’s your business, after all. Do you have family there? Anyone to meet you? I mean with the reputation of the place, it would be better for you if…”

“How much?”

Her tone of voice, now sharp, made it clear that there was to be no more discussion. Tixu took on the pathetic role of the humble ILTC employee again.

“You’re the customer, ma’am, and the customer is always right! I was just trying to help.”

His fingers brushed over the keys on the console. But he could not stop the swirling stream of thoughts that broke through his dam of boredom and indifference. He seriously regretted his untidy look; his patchy beard; his dirty nails, that he tried to hide from her eyes by pressing them into his palms; his teeth, yellow from the red Skoj tobacco and the mumbë; the humidity and the filth all around him. He was suddenly, in front of this Syracusan full of grace and haughtiness, aware of the emptiness of his existence, of how low he had fallen.

Some fluorescent numbers came up on the curved screen.

“Transfer to Red Spot: Fifteen thousand standard units.”

“Fifteen thousand! That is too much!”

“I… I don’t think you’ll find it cheaper anywhere else,” answered Tixu, taken aback by the fact that a Syracusan would lower herself by bargaining. “The ILTC is the company that offers the lowest prices in the universe… known and unknown. In any case, there are no other deremats on Two-Seasons.”

The visitor’s eyes locked onto Tixu’s, and he almost staggered from the force of her stare.

“I do not have that sum of money right now,” she said slowly, her words like arrows. “But it is essential, vital that I go to Red Spot! Do you understand?”

“I understand, I understand,” said Tixu, lying, as he was clumsily trying to free himself from the terrible pressure she was using on him. “In that case, take the ordinary temporal shuttle.”

“Totally out of the question! It would take at least three standard weeks, and there is also the problem of pirates. Fifteen thousand, you said…”

She was obviously looking for a solution. She was biting her lower lip, which became white from the pressure of her teeth, covered in bluish mother-of-pearl. Her leg was trembling more than before. She was clearly having great trouble stabilizing her emotional control, which showed just how deeply she was worried.

“I can offer you eight thousand units,” she continued, overcoming her obvious dislike for this kind of sordid bargaining. “The rest later. It goes without saying that I will leave you my personal prints on a promissory note.”

“Sorry ma’am, I cannot accept,” said Tixu with a smile that was meant to be conciliatory, but which lacked the conviction which would have made it totally convincing.

Then he quickly added, to justify himself, “Whatever your reasons are for making this proposition, and I am sure that they are good reasons, I cannot allow myself to infringe the internal regulations of the Company.”

As soon as he said those words, a meddlesome little voice came out of the depths of his soul. Why was employee Oty, code MSØ 12 A 2, suddenly so worried about the internal regulations of the Company? Was this a leftover of his conditioning, conscientiousness, or just a way of getting attention?

He thought that she was going to clear out, and he already regretted it, but she was not like the usual customers, who were demoralized by the slightest thing. She put her long thin hands, her artist’s hands, on the desk. Her face came dangerously close to Tixu’s, and he was slightly intoxicated by the smell of her perfume.

“I know that you have to follow your regulations. Everyone has to follow something. But this trip is indispensable! Indispensable! Please, listen to me with all your heart and all your ears instead of hiding behind your regulations.”

She paused for a second and looked at Tixu, who was crushed against the back of his chair.

“This trip is not indispensable for me, but for the universe. For the universe! The Naflin Federation is in great danger. And this has nothing to do with your regulations. I must leave immediately!”

Her nails, which were painted with silver, and pointed, in the Syracusan style, were almost driven into the cheap fake wood of the desk. Tixu, uncomfortable, twisted his chair back and forth. Bursts of sparks came out of its light tubes. He felt some prickles on his wrists and forearms.

“The universe! Well, you sure don’t just go halfway, do you? The Company’s insurance is limited to covering our customers’ personal effects, but not the entire universe! Especially not for eight thousand units! That’s below the lowest market price.”

While he was saying that like a poorly-wound mechanical parrot, he was calculating the possible consequences of selling her the transfer at a reduced price. If he gave false information to the program, the deremat would immediately stop working. The number of passengers, the exact destination, the standard price, the method of payment; all the data needed for a deremat was handled by the central memory partition of the administrative center of zone 1098 A. The necessary amount of money had to be credited to the Company’s bank account. That left about two or three minutes before the computers reconciled the accounts and reported the discrepancy, two or three hours before the auditors checked into the problem, and a day or two before the inspobot showed up in the agency.

Tixu decided that this ridiculous game of hide and seek with the Company had gone on long enough. This girl gave him the perfect chance to put an end to his sad stay on this diluvian planet. He was almost cheerful when he said, “So you have eight thousand units?”

“Almost. Does that mean you agree?”

He tried to keep looking into her eyes, thirty centimeters away from his. He was screwed and he knew it, so he could afford to do a favor for a pretty Syracusan, even if she did have a way of acting as if she thought he was a total moron. And this story about saving the universe (from who? from what?) was a welcome change from the feverish ravings of the miners.

“You know, I’m taking a big chance selling a transfer this cheap.”

Beaten, but a poor loser, Tixu was trying to make his action look important: the heroic action of a humble employee who puts his career on the line for a woman’s smile. She did not let any admiration show. He lowered his eyes.

“So, for eight thousand we get a double expedition: you go to Red Spot and I get in trouble. I’ll have to take your prints for the promissory note, not that it will change anything.”

The Syracusan’s blue, green, and golden eyes sparkled brightly. Her face lit up with a radiant smile. Tixu’s mind was filled with an image of a white-edged corolla opening to show a bluish pistil. He quickly wondered how long it had been since he had kissed a woman. The flacid mouths of the prostitutes do not encourage passionate kisses.

“When can I leave?”

“As soon as you have taken care of the medical formalities. Even though the Company has decided to make you this special offer, you can’t get out of the medical check-up. Do you see the small room over there? Just follow the instructions on the bubble-screen inside. Let this be clear: if the phys check doesn’t give you a go-ahead, the machine will immediately interrupt its cellular recognition. No matter how important your trip is for our dear Federation…”

She did not listen to what he was saying, and walked lightly to the room, which was separated from the main office by a glass door. Tixu typed the code to start the phys check.

He felt that he was really screwing up. The ILTC considered dealing transfers to be a firing offence. Not only did he risk an internal sanction, but also a criminal conviction, and being put on the raskatta index. He cursed his stupidity: he was being taken for a ride just like a total paritol, as the Syracusans contemptuously called the inhabitants of other known worlds.

At the same time, he felt as happy as a kid. Happy to get this over with, happy to forget about the rules, happy to finally do what he felt was right. The phys checker’s red lights went off one by one. A green and black triangle was flashing on the right of the screen: the passenger was physically fit to withstand the destructuring and reconstitution of her cells and DNA.

Tixu was disappointed: he could not go back on his decision now. Even if this girl was distant and inaccessible to him, her presence had set off a confused feeling of renewed vitality deep within him. She made him think of the Alchim women, in the old Orangian legends, who could change dismal deserts into fertile lands. Coming from a distant world, she was as distant from him as the Central Worlds were from the Marches, but she was a first ray of sunlight in his endless winter.

A few seconds later, she was in front of his desk again. She was surrounded by a subtle grayish-blue halo: she had left the room too soon, and the Phys checker had not had the time to dissolve its light-investigation fields. She was really in a hurry.

“Is everything ready?”

“Almost,” answered Tixu reluctantly. “We just need to settle the… the financial problem. Yes, let’s just say we’ll settle it, to make life easier.”

His humor, the hopeless humor of someone who knows he is about to lose everything, left her indifferent. She removed a many-colored ruby-incrusted purse from the inside pocket of her cape.

“Here, I will give you everything. It is Syracusan money, which I unfortunately did not have time to change into standard units. Count it: it is worth eight thousand units.”

“I trust you,” muttered Tixu.

He was not about to argue over one more breach of regulations. And besides, that was fine with him; he had always hated the interplanetary money-changing system.

“Oh, yes, I was about to forget. Our deremat is a very old model, not to say ancient…”

“But it works, doesn’t it?”

Worry could be heard in the traveler’s voice once again.

“Of course, that’s not the problem. But it does have a few disadvantages that the newer models have corrected… You see, Two-Seasons is far from everything, and…”

“What disadvantages?”

He could again feel the weight of her glance. He blushed up to the roots of his hair. Sweat started dripping down his forehead and his neck. Warm rivulets formed under his armpits and flowed down between his shirt and his arms.

“It is designed to transfer human cells. Only human cells. Which means it will only transfer your body. Your clothes will not go with you. No other objects either. All of your personal effects will stay here: your bag, your money, everything else. That’s why I asked you before if you knew someone there, so I could program your transfer to their house.”

She was silent, suffering an intense internal struggle, which was betrayed by the vertical crease on her forehead and the renewed shaking of her leg. The prudish Syracusans never took their clothes off in public, let alone their bodstockings. Since having pure white skin was one of the major canons of Syracusan beauty, they avoided exposing their precious skin to the rays of suns. Tixu was seized with the crazy hope that he could keep her there one minute, one hour, perhaps one day longer; he came out with the punch line:

“You will show up on Red Spot as naked as the day you were born, ma’am! And it’s already a planet with a bad reputation…”

She eyed him with such contempt that he quickly regretted what he had said.

“I know no one there,” she said in a dull voice. “More correctly, I do not know where the person I need to contact lives.”

“That’s a problem.”

“I guess there is no way around it.”

“Yes! Don’t go. Or at least take some time to prepare yourself. If you want, I can help you to…”

“Impossible!”

He understood at that moment that there was no way he would weaken her resolve. He typed in the code for the 3D filmap of the capital of Red Spot. Streets awash in red light and broken-down buildings scrolled on the screen.

“I’ve never been on Red Spot myself,” he said. “But I know that outside the capital is nothing but deserted land. I assume that you don’t want to find yourself naked and without water in a temperature of 65 degrees centigrade. On this filmap you can make out the collapsed buildings in the southern part of the city.”

He turned the screen for her to see.

“According to the notes, vagrants live among these. But be careful, when they take too much of a drug called happy-powder, they can get aggressive. You’ll probably be able to find some old clothes. But I am warning you: Red Spot is a hub for smugglers on the Index, especially for those who deal in human stock, that is, slaves. Don’t count on the Federal Interlice to help you if you have any problems. They’re all in the smugglers’ pockets. I think the best thing is to send you here.” The filmap stopped at a broken-down three-storey building, slightly askew in an empty lot. “What do you think?”

“I don’t think anything!” she answered, caustically. “I have no choice. If I understand you correctly, when a customer comes to your company, they must be prepared to travel naked and with no money?”

Tixu snickered a bit. He hadn’t laughed for centuries.

“No, ma’am. Not if you take the basic precaution of going to a bank to have your money wired to a branch at your destination. In fact, with… normal transfers, this is a service we offer to our customers…”

“It does not matter! I must leave right away. Now, about the promissory note.”

“Oh, forget about it! I won’t be here anymore if you ever get the ludicrous idea to reimburse the Company. However, you can pick up your clothes if you ever happen to pass through our wonderful planet again. The ILTC guarantees that it will take good care of them and not sell them for two standard years!”

She ran her eyes over his uniform.

“You can do with them whatever you wish. I doubt that they will fit you.”

He had forgotten about his messiness, his filth and his stench. She made sure to remind him of it. A new wave of shame engulfed him.

“Follow me!” he said offensively.

He opened the airlock brusquely. The reinforced door opened with a sharp click. Followed by his passenger, he went into the hall leading to the deremat room. The airlock closed automatically behind them. The control screens and the transmitters, set in concave metallic cubicles, lit up one after another. In theory, they would allow an employee, who was busy taking care of a transfer, to survey the main office of the agency, and, in case of a problem, to contact the Company’s technicians.

A corrosive heartache was eating away at Tixu’s gut. He would have done anything to keep his arrogant passenger from going. She despised him, probably thought he was some sort of freak of nature, and needed only to blink her eyelashes to have him in the palm of her hand.

She had fanned the embers of his internal flame. He could not shake the idea that this magnificent creature had not come across his path by accident. But she was about to leave his life forever, and this perspective sent him tumbling into an abyss of sadness and suffering.

The machine sat imposingly on a platform in the middle of an arched room. It was a half sphere with wide black sides, and looked like some sort of prehistoric cauldron that had been turned upside down. At first sight, it was hard to believe that this machine could even send anyone across the street.

Tixu pulled a lever in a recess to the left of the entrance. An intense ray of light made a halo around the top of the machine. A black glass window opened.

“Go inside.” muttered Tixu, suddenly in a hurry to get this over with. “Through this window, please. Lie on the bunk and follow the instructions on the ceiling screen. Above all, do not hold onto the walls. You will probably have a headache for a few hours after the reconstruction. But you must know that. You’ve already traveled by deremat, haven’t you? You must have, because the normal shuttle only comes here every two weeks.”

Before going into the narrow passageway, she turned her beautiful face toward him and said, “You are too curious. Although, sometimes, curiosity can be an incredible driving force for evolution.”

“Okay, okay, ma’am. Can I at least ask you one last question? You know, a convict always wants to know the real reason for his sentence. That story you fed me, about the serious danger for the Federation, it was a joke, wasn’t it? You can come clean, now, you got what you wanted.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, it was not a joke! But I cannot tell you any more. The less you know, the better it will be for you. In any case, I thank you with all of my heart for what you have done for me.”

There was such warmth in her voice, in her smile, in her eyes, that Tixu was overwhelmed. She put her legs, then her torso into the access tube. The black window slid shut with a long slow hiss. Choking with unexpected emotion, Tixu leaned over the small external transmitter and mechanically announced the usual technical information.

“Arrival on Red Spot, in the capital, in two standard minutes. Atmosphere: breathable. Local time: 1300 hours. Temperature: 49 degrees centigrade. Sky: red. The ILTC wishes you… I wish you bon voyage.”

He opened the panel of the console and programmed the transfer with the light buttons: Red Spot; capital, coordinates 456, latitude 54, longitude 321, relay point X2 T3 prime, supine position, time and place of departure 07:57, Two-Seasons. Price: 15,000 standard units, fully paid (his tense fingers had to correct this last entry twice, before he could get it right).

The machine gave off a low hum while the halo above its top circle slowly faded away until it was completely gone.

Three minutes later, a red light came on above the window. Tixu opened it and went inside the passageway. The Syracusan’s clothes were lying there, spread out on the transfer bunk. A flowery scent drifted in the warm close air. Distraught, Tixu picked up the cape. It was soft, and its colors, sometimes bright, sometimes subtle, changed as the light played on it. Deprived of the presence of the voyager, Tixu was overcome with a desire to smell her fragrance, the only link left between them. Crouching down, he thrust his face in the white bodstocking, as light as a feather, and breathed in deeply, for a long while, the subtle smell of her skin, her sweat, the odor of pepper and flowers that imbibed the cloth.

He left the room with infinite regrets. He now had to immerse himself again in the disastrous atmosphere of the agency, and await, with resignation, the visit from the inspobot.

This was, without doubt, the coldest, most depressing perspective in the known and unknown universe.

Read chapter 2…

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