Authors: Allen Steele
“We'll get paid, won't we?” Emily asked.
“Rest assured, I'll abide by the terms of my contract. No commission, though, I'm afraid.” Then he looked at Ash. “As for youâ¦”
“What?” Ash tipped back his head and held the squeezebulb above his mouth. He crushed it within his fist until the last drop of bearshine was gone, then tossed the empty bulb aside. “You're going to fire me? You know better.”
I wondered what he meant by that, but before I could say anything, Ted let out his breath. “Well, there it is. We'll load up theâ¦paperweights, or whateverâ¦and go home. Maybe next time we'll get a better deal, but for nowâ¦” He shrugged. “At least it's a start.”
The start of what, he didn't say. No one else was willing to speculate, either. All I knew was that not even feeling up a
could have made anyone feel better just then.
I went upstairs and lay down, intending to take a nap. But I had just dozed off when Ted knocked on my door. Fah had appeared again, this time to inform him that the shipment of
was packed and ready to be put aboard the
. Since the captain wanted to return home as soon as politely possibleâwe still had the reception to attend that evening, but he'd scheduled our departure from
for 0900 in the morningâhe needed Rain and me to load the cargo that afternoon.
No problem, so far as I was concerned. Rain didn't voice any objections either, so we headed back to the saucer. As we were leaving the guest quarters, though, Ali asked if he could join us; he was bored, and wanted to watch the load-in from the ship. Couldn't blame him very much. Ash had passed out on the downstairs couch, and from behind the closed door of Morgan's bedroom I could hear him discussing something with Ted and Emilyâthe details of the deal he'd made with the
, I assumed. So there was nothing for our pilot to do. At least Rain and I were keeping busy.
Once we returned to the
and suited up again, we found Duh and hisher minions waiting for us in the hangar. The sled was loaded with square metal crates, each four feet wide on a side. I opened one before we put it aboard and found that it contained fifty
, each individually sealed in plastic, stacked and separated from one another by removable dividers. Either the
had packed the crates in a hurry, or else they'd decided what they wanted to give us in exchange for our cannabis long before we got there. I wondered if Morgan was aware of this.
So Rain and I spent the next four and a half hours loading the crates aboard the
; there were forty in all, and once again we alternated between Cargo One and Cargo Two, making sure that the mass was evenly distributed on either side of the ship. The
'bots did much of the work for us, carrying the crates from the sled to the cargo hatches, where either Rain or I would take possession of them and push them over to the inside decks to be lashed down. Once this was done, she and I carefully counted the crates, using light pens and datapads to maintain inventory control. Unless the
had decided to put rocks inside some of those boxes, we had exactly two thousand
to take home. I hoped Morgan was as shrewd of a businessman as he claimed he was, or otherwise he'd be stuck with a whole lot of paperweights.
Rain and I cycled through the airlock for what we hoped was the last time, but when we left the ready room, we discovered Doc Schachner waiting for us at the airlock. Apparently Ali had decided that he'd had enough of extraterrestrial hospitality; with Ted's permission, he'd elected to remain aboard the
for the remainder of the trip, taking over for Doc as watchman. Which was fine with our chief engineer; he wanted to see
for himself. So we escorted him down the tunnel to the decontamination facility and waited for him while he endured the strip-and-jab procedure.
Another tram ride, which by then had become almost dull, and we were back at the library. Ash was still crashed out on the couch, although someone had rolled him over so that he wouldn't snore so much. The door to Ted and Emily's room was shut, so I figured they were spending some quality time together. I was thinking about taking a siesta when Morgan appeared at the gallery railing. Would I please come up for a private meeting? It didn't sound like I had much choice, so I went upstairs to his room.
For a race with limited exposure to human needs, the
had furnished our rooms well. A bed, a desk, an armchair, and a private bath complete with toilet, sink, and shower: nothing fancy, but comfortable all the same. Morgan had turned his quarters into a temporary office; a comp was open on his desk, with papers spread out on either side of it. He closed the door behind us, then took a seat on the only chair in the room.
“Did the load-in go well?” he asked.
“Sure. No problem.” I shrugged. “Forty crates, fifty items per crate. Two thousand paperweights in all.”
He frowned. “I'd just as soon that you not refer to them as paperweights. Once Janus puts them on the market, they'll be sold as alien artifactsâ¦mood enhancers, most likely. What our customers do with them is their own business, of course, but âpaperweights' makes them sound trivial.”
“Sure. Whatever.” So far as I was concerned, he could call them Ol' Doc Morgan's Magic Elixir and pitch them as rheumatism cures. “Anyway, they're aboard, safe and sound.”
“Uh-huh. Good.” He didn't say anything else for a moment, but instead simply regarded me with what might have been a forlorn expression if it had extended to his eyes. But there was something in his gaze that was cold and ruthless, and I began to realize that whatever he wanted to discuss with me, it wasn't good.
“Jules,” he said, after letting me stand there for a little while, “you've disappointed me. When I interceded on your behalf, it was because I thought you'd be a major asset. Indeed, I believed you'd be a good employee. But nowâ¦”
Morgan sighed, running a hand across the top of his shaved head as he glanced up at the ceiling. “What you've doneâ¦your conduct the last couple of daysâ¦has been nothing short of a betrayal of my confidence. At the very least, it was unprofessional. At worst, it undermined everything I was trying to achieve.”
“Huh?” I blinked. “What are youâ¦?”
“I asked you to stay away from Mr. Ash, and not approach him without my permission. I explained to you that hisâ¦well, his talentâ¦makes him sensitive, and that your dealings with him should be minimal. But instead, you chose to ignore my request, andâ¦”
“So I spoke to him. Big deal.”
“No.” He scowled at me. “It's worse than that, and you know it. You brought him bearshine from the ship, just when I needed his judgment to be unimpaired. And thatâ¦”
“Oh, no you don't!” I snapped. “You're not sticking this on me. I saw Ash this morning before he went into that meeting with you and Fah, and he was cold sober.”
“No, he wasn't. He was hungover.”
“Maybe soâ¦but that doesn't mean he was drunk.” I shook my head. “Either way, it didn't matter. Ash couldn't read Fah's mind because he didn't know hisher language. All he could get were vague impressions. He told you that himself.”
“Yes, he did. But you also kept from me the fact that Jas knows that Ash belongs to the Order of the Eye. This is something you should have reported to me at once.”
“Sorry, but I was under the impression that you wanted me to mind my own business.”
“When it comes to something like this, your business is my business.”
“In that case, Mr. Goldstein, you should pay closer attention to your business.” I couldn't help but smile. “Funny thing about all those paperweights”âhis left eyelid ticked as I spokeâ“for something you bought just a few hours ago, they looked as if they'd already been packed for a while. Either the
are really, really efficient, or they'd decided upon the terms long before we got here. If that's the case, nothing Ash could've told you would have made any difference.”
An icy stare. “Don't tell me how to negotiate a deal, son. I was making my first million when you were still in diapers.”
“Then maybe you shouldn't rely on telepaths.” Something occurred to me just then, a thought that had eluded me until that moment. “Ash is a good guy,” I went on, “but as a reliable source, he's got a lot to be desired. Did you know, when you got him to read my mind while I was in jail, that he got the facts mixed up? I didn't betray my brotherâ¦he betrayed me. But that's not what he told you, was it?”
“How did youâ¦?” He stopped. “You talked to Rain, didn't you?”
“She told me a little, yeahâ¦but I didn't figure out the rest until just a second ago. I thought your people had somehow managed to access my Academy files, but that wasn't how you found out about my past, was it? Instead, you sent Ash to see me in jail.”
He shrugged. “So?”
“So, what does his little mistake tell you about his reliability? Sure, he may be able to dig into people's brainsâ¦but for him to stay sane, he has to drink. And you should know better than to trust whatever a drunk tells you.”
“Yes, wellâ¦I'll be having some words with Mr. Ash once he wakes up. For now, my primary concern is with you.” Morgan paused. “I'm afraid I've had to reconsider the terms of our arrangement, Mr. Truffaut. Once our business here is concluded, I won't be needing you any longer.”
“You mean, I'm fired.”
“Consider it a termination of contract, effective once we've returned to Coyote. You'll be paid for services rendered, of courseâ¦but you will no longer be employed by Janus, which means that you will no longer be eligible for its benefits.”
It took me a second to realize what he meant by that. The fact that I'd be evicted from my room at the Soldier's Joy was the least of my problems. More important was the fact that Morgan had posted bail for me, with his lawyer seeing to it that my court case had been remanded to a future date. While I was working for him, it was doubtful that the magistrates would ever take serious legal action against me. But once I was no longer a Janus employee, I wouldn't have that protectionâ¦and the next time I showed up in court, the maggies would have fresh meat to barbecue.
“You son of a bitch,” I murmured. “You know what that's going to do to me.”
A cold smile stole across Morgan's face. “I have no idea what you're talking about,” he replied, then he turned around in his chair to pick up some papers from his desk. “That's all. You may leave now.”
My legs felt rubbery as I turned toward the door. “Oh, and one more thing,” Morgan added. “Please remember that we've been invited to a reception this evening.” He looked up at me again. “And you are expected to attendâ¦I think the
would consider it rude if any of our party were absent.”
I should've said something about his own lack of manners, but this was one of those moments when your brain can't find the right words. “Please don't slam the door on the way out,” Morgan said as I left the room.
Screw him. I slammed it anyway.
feeling kind of etherealâ¦
party with the aliensâ¦
a momentary lapse of reason.
I went back to my room and lay down again but this time didn't even try to take a nap. All I could do was stare at the ceiling. My mind was a blank, save for an elaborate daydream about somehow luring Morgan into the
's airlock and giving him the heave-ho. For a revenge fantasy, it was rather satisfying, but out of the question. The Talus would probably object to us mucking up their space colony with our garbage.
After a long while, I sighed and got out of bed. Nothing I could do now except try to get along as best I could for the rest of the trip. At least I'd met the
. It'd give me something to talk about with my fellow prison inmates once I was deported back to Earth.
When I left my room, I saw that everyone had gathered around the table where we'd been having our meals. Everyone except Morgan and Ash, that is; Goldstein's door was still closed, and I noticed that Ash was missing from the couch where he'd passed out a few hours earlier. The others gave me wary looks as I came downstairs; I didn't have to ask to know that they'd already learned that I'd been canned.
Ted confirmed this by offering an apologetic hand. “Heard about what happened,” he said quietly. “I'm really sorry. Morgan shouldn't have done that to you.”
“Yeah, wellâ¦guess he needs a scapegoat.” I was glad to get whatever sympathy I could just then. “Would it be too much to ask if you could put in a good word for me?”
“I could, but”âa helpless shrugâ“it wouldn't make much difference. Once he makes up his mind, he seldom changes it.”
Emily walked over to join us. “Anyway, you may not be the only one who's going to be looking for another job.” She cautiously glanced up at the gallery, making sure that we weren't being overheard. “When we talked to him a little while ago, he said something about putting our contracts under review. My guess is that, after this run, he's going to replace us with another crewâ¦probably from Earth.”
I stared at her. “What for? You guys haven't done anything.”
“Like you saidâ¦he's looking for scapegoats.” A scowl crept across her face. “So far as he's concerned, this trip has been a complete bust, and Morgan's the kind of person who blames anyone but himself. Besides, he has to tell his investors something, soâ¦”
I felt a soft hand on my arm and looked around to find Rain standing beside me. She didn't say anything, nor did she have to; the look in her eyes was sufficient. For a brief instant, I was almost angry with herâdespite what Emily said, Rain was the last person Morgan would fire, if only because of reasons of patronageâbut it quickly passed. Rain had nothing to do with any of this; the fact that she was sympathetic at all toward me showed just how far our relationship had come in such a short time.
“Thanks,” I murmured, and she forced a smile and nodded. At loss for words, I glanced over at the table. “Soâ¦what's going on here? Coffee break?”
“Something like that.” Doc stepped aside to let me look. “Although I don't think anything here would qualify as coffee.”
Spread out across the table were an assortment of platters, plates, and bowls, each containing food of some variety or another. One bowl held something that looked like blue seaweed; another was filled with a murky black porridge. Limp green vegetables that resembled overcooked bean sprouts were piled upon a platter; next to it was a plate of small brown cubes a little like rice cakes. In the middle of the table was a bottle filled with some reddish gold liquid that might have been maple syrup.
“Dinner?” I bent over the black porridge, inspected it a little more closely. It smelled vile, and the chunky stuff floating around in it didn't look very appetizing, either.
“Uh-huh.” Doc picked up the bottle, experimentally tilted it back and forth. “Fah and a couple of
delivered it while you were nappingâ¦along with a few other things. Heshe said that since we wouldn't be able to eat at the reception along with everyone else, we were being served dinner in advance.” Twisting open the cap, he reached for a nearby glass. “Must be the local brew. Might as well try it outâ¦”
“Might as well not.” Ted hurried over to take the bottle away from him. “We have no idea whether any of this is edible or not. And since we don't have a physician aboardâ¦”
“Oh, c'mon.” Doc raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You don't seriously think they'd try to poison us, do you?”
“He's right.” Rain eyed a plate of something that looked like rancid cabbage. “I wouldn't eat this stuff if you held a gun to my head.”
I picked up one of the cakes. It had a granular texture and a nice, spicy odor; I was greatly tempted to have a bite. “I dunno. If we don't at least try some of it, they might take offenseâ¦”
“Put it down, Jules. That's an order.” Ted frowned at me. “This is your fault, you know. If you hadn't told Jas you'd like to sample their cuisineâ¦”
“Hey, I was just trying to be polite.” I reluctantly put the cake back on the plate. “How was I to know that heshe would take me seriously?”
“Yes, wellâ¦even so, the last thing we need now is to have someone come down with food poisoning.” Emily sighed. “If they ask, we'll just have to tell a little white lie and say that we enjoyed it very much.” She paused. “Maybe I'll dump some of it down the toilet, to make it look like we've eaten.”
“That might work. As for now”âTed pointed to the other side of the tableâ“we've been brought our evening clothes. Those, at least, I know we can wearâ¦so long as we're careful.”
Stacked upon the table were several off-white bundles; on top of each was what appeared to be a small plastic air mask. Rain picked up one of the bundles; as she unfolded it, we saw that it was a long, white robe, similar to the one Ash wore except without a hood, with intricate patterns stitched across its thick, plush fabric. “What is this, anyway?” she asked, holding it up against her. “We're supposed to put these on?”
“It's called a
,” Emily replied. “Ted and I were given ones just like these the first time we were here. Consider it an honorâ¦apparently they have some ceremonial significance.”
“Okay, but what do you mean by being careful?” So far as I could tell, they were no more menacing than the outfits Rain and I had worn after we'd gone through decontamination.
“They're sensitive to electrodermal charges from the skinâ¦see?” To demonstrate, Emily took the
Rain had opened and slipped it on over her clothes. Rolling back a sleeve of her work shirt, she allowed the
bell sleeve to rest against her forearm. A moment passed, then its whorl-like patterns turned a pale shade of yellow. “That means I'm calm, but if I get angry”âshe closed her eyes and concentrated, and the pattern became blackâ“the
shows that, too.”
“Oh, great.” Doc shook his head. “That means we have to make sure no one gets pissed off.”
“It's not so bad,” Emily added. “They're really quite comfortable. I've found that if you have a T-shirt and knickers on underneath, it mitigates the sensitivity a bit. So long as you keep control of your emotions, you'll be fine.”
“And what if we decide to come as we are?”
“Can't do that.” Ted let out his breath. “Maybe we can get away without eating the food they've offered us, but showing up without these will definitely be considered rude. Sorry, but that's the way it is.” He picked up one of the air masks. “Fah told us these contain translators. You activate them by touching this little button.” He pointed to a small stud recessed within one side of the mask. “No one uses it unless they have to, though, right? Just let me do the talking.”
Doc regarded the mask with suspicion. “They definitely have a low tolerance for cultural differences, don't they?”
“I just don't want any misunderstandings, that's all.” Ted glanced at his watch. “We're expected in about an hour or so. Everyone go change, and we'll meet back here.”
“And then what?” I asked.
“Then we're off to the party.” Ted grinned. “Don't worry. Remember, we're the guests of honor. What could go wrong?”
and air mask under my arm, I went back up to my room and put them on. It felt like I was wearing a bathrobe, but once I tied its sash in place and hung the air mask around my neck, the
was pleasantly warm, its patterns taking on a subtle yellow glow. When I experimented a little by recalling my earlier fantasy about pitching Morgan through an airlock, though, they gradually turned black. All right, then: no more nasty thoughts about the boss, or at least until I was back in my own duds.
I was the first person to return to the library. The others were still in their rooms. In hindsight, I realized that perhaps I should have taken a bath. Too late for that, though; I'd just have to wait for everyone else. So I puttered around the room, looking at the lithographs on the walls while trying to ignore the growling in my stomach. Perhaps I could make a sandwichâ¦
My gaze fell upon the food the
had brought us. Emily had left some sandwiches on the table, but hadn't yet disposed of the alien repast. The porridge still looked obscene, and I've always disliked cabbage and bean sprouts regardless of their color, but the cakes were awfully tempting. I picked one up, peered at it closely. It appeared no more sinister than a chocolate brownie, and it smelled positively delicious.
What the hell. I was hungry, and I was tired of sandwiches. I took a tentative nibble of the cake; it had a satisfying crunch, and tasted like gingerbread spiced with nutmeg, albeit with a strong herbal aftertaste. I swallowed, waited to see what would happen next. When I didn't have an urge to vomit, I glanced up at the gallery to make sure that no one was watching, then ate the rest. And then, simply because I wanted to, I helped myself to another.
I was on my third cake when a door upstairs opened and shut. I stuffed the rest of it in my mouth and chewed as fast as I could. I'd just wiped the incriminating crumbs from the corners of my mouth when Ash came downstairs. He must have slept off the booze because he didn't stumble on the way down. He stopped at the bottom of the steps, regarded me with curious eyes.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing. Just waiting for everyone to show up.” I noticed that he wasn't wearing a
, but instead his own robe. “Didn't you get one of these?” I asked, plucking at the sleeve of my outfit.
“Yeah, but I'm not putting it on.” He didn't bother to explain why but instead continued to study me. “You're feeling guilty about something. What is it?”
I stepped away from the table, hoping that he wouldn't subject me to a deep probe. The patterns of my robe had turned red, though; I tried to make the color go away by thinking about something else. “Don't worry about it. How did things go with Morgan?”
“Did he fire me, too, you mean?” Ash shook his head. “He's not going to do thatâ¦not so long as I belong to the Order. We've got too much on him.” A cynical smile that quickly faded. “Sorry I got you into trouble. That wasn't my intention.”
“Nah. Don't worry about it.” For some reason, I wasn't as angry as I had been. Indeed, I'd come to accept my situation as inevitable. “Would've happened sooner or later, I guess.”
“Hmmâ¦yes, if you say so.” Ash's eyes narrowed. “Are you sure you're all right?”
“Yeah. I'm great.” Although I wished he hadn't interrupted me when he did. Those cakes were pretty good; I could have used another one.
He was about to say something else when another door opened and shut. A moment later, Morgan came downstairs, tying the sash of his robe around himself. When he saw Ash and me, his
patterns turned dark brown; he avoided looking at either of us, though, but instead marched over to the fireplace, where he stood with his back to us. He shouldn't have been so nervous; any animosity I'd felt toward him had disappeared, replaced instead by a vague sense of amusement. Hard to believe that I'd once respected him; in fact, I couldn't help but think that he looked like nothing more than a fat old guy in a hotel bathrobe.
It wasn't long before the rest of our group joined us. As I thought, both Rain and Emily had taken baths. Rain's hair was still a little wet, but that only seemed to add to her sensuality. For the first time, I truly realized what a sexy creature she was and how much I'd love to get beneath that robe of hers. There must have been a certain look in my eyes, for when she turned my way a blush appeared on her face that matched the color of her
. Yeah, she knew what I was thinkingâ¦and so what? I was a red-blooded, heterosexual male, and proud of it.
Meanwhile, Emily had walked over to the table. She glanced at the platter holding the spice cakes, and I wondered whether she'd notice that two or three were missing. Perhaps she did, because she turned to Ted. Before she could say anything, though, Fah suddenly materialized.