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There are some very strange people in the universe. I don't mean human beings -- human beings are strange, God knows, but we're used to human beings. We've had less than two hundred years to get used to the others -- the aliens, as people used to call them before we met some -- and now and then it does take just a little doing. There are the Berigot, for instance -- nice enough folk, true, but you do have to allow for that passionate interest in information-collecting, and the lack of interest in anything else. There are the Vibich, too, whom we've never figured out at all, and who seem to have no interest in us whatever -- which simplifies matters without clarifying them any. The Kelans aren't exactly strange; they're more like the Wise Old Uncles (and Aunts) of the Universe -- but the Tocks, who may know almost as much (in their own weird way), are anybody's strong contenders for the Strange Award, and name your year. There are, as we'll see further along, the Gielli, who take a little more getting used to than you think they're going to.
Well, even the small piece of the universe we've managed to get to see, so far, as 2300 A.D. has come and gone, is the Hell of a big place, and you can expect Strange to crop up anywhere. No real problem, and some of my best friends, if I may preen a little, are among the strangest.
Or at least, they used to be -- before the real aliens popped up.
You may not have heard much about them yet -- Folla and Dube and all the others. The Comity was the Hell of a long distance from where they did pop up, and the Comity had no official authority over the matter; but the actual (not official)authority of a government is as stretchable as an old girdle, if every bit as smelly, and Colonization, External Affairs and the entire damn Dichtung turn out to have a reach that makes the ancient Long Hand of the Law look like your favorite carnival's Armless Wonder. The lid has been put on, and soldered damn well shut, and there is a general feeling that maybe, just maybe, if nobody mentions anything, the whole situation will give us one small embarrassed smile, and fade into the woodwork.
If you've got this report in your hands -- or feet, or mouth, or beam -- you know better Or you will, by the time I'm through here. Because Folla and Dube and all their friends and associates are not, I assure you, likely to fade into any kind of woodwork at all, and we had better know something about them. One way or another, we're going to have to live with them.
Let's start from the beginning, shall we?
I was going from Here to There through space-four, which I do a lot of. The specs don't matter, because I never did arrive at There, and it took me several hours of sweat and fret to locate Here all over again, from a position that turned out to be eleven thousand light-years from anyplace any human being had ever seen before -- astronomical surveys excepted. What I was, God damn it, was lost.
This is not supposed to happen, but of course it does; uncertainty is built into space-four, and everybody knows it, and everybody figures it will bite some other body. I popped back into normal space on schedule, looked around for the field and towers, and found out that, this time, it had by God bitten me: I was traveling at the Hell of a clip, my instruments told me, through what my viewboards told me was empty space.
Well, as empty as space gets -- littered as it mostly is with hydrogen atoms, radiation, and occasional junk. And I was not at all sure I could trust the boards; I punched up my locator and got, instead, a lovely 3D graph that didn't seem at first glance -- or at eleventh -- to make any sense. The graph was labeled (lower right front, as usual): INFORMATION CONSUMPTION (PRELIMINARY), and it was scaled in minutes, parsecs and kilojoules.
I shut my eyes and uttered something or other -- prayer, curse or simple steam -- and when I opened them the graph hadn't changed, but the label had. PRELIMINARY had been replaced by EXIGENT. While I watched, EXIGENT faded away, and was replaced by FIFTH READ.
Four seconds ticked by. Then the label vanished, taking the damn graph with it, and a blinking sign appeared.
FORMAL ERROR, it said: PLEASE RECHECK DATA FEED.
It took the words right out of my mouth; the data feed, and the data, were what I was going to check, and recheck, till Hell wouldn't have it. I needed some solid answers, and I needed them in a hurry.
Step one: define "hurry."
All right: I was still breathing, and the air did not seem noticeably odd in any way. Water and food supplies were computer mediated, of course, and if I did a full readout to find out what I had, I'd get figures I couldn't trust, given what the boards had been doing. But I did have two water bottles, and iron rations, stowed under the never-used co-pilot's couch (well, never used in flight; there are always a few rosebuds who find a tour of your ship an exciting way to spend an evening). Thirty-six hours was my best figure for what the supplies to hand meant.
Unless, of course, the damn ship took it into its head to explode. That, I reflected, might happen at any second.
It might not happen, too, and there was nothing whatever I could do about it, pro or con. I fished a portable tester out of the pilot's locker and it told me the air was air, normal for composition and pressure, at the temperature I'd set it for -- 78F/25.3C, if it matters. There are people who claim that a cold ship increases alertness, and I make it a point not to travel with these people if I can help it.
Conditionally, then, I had thirty-six hours to figure out where I was, and how I was going to get to some specific someplace else. It didn't really seem like enough time.
I had that portable tester, by the way -- running on its own power source, unconnected to the ship -- and the water, and the rations -- and a few other things here and there around the cabin -- for reasons related to my trade. My business cards read: Gerald Knave: Survivor, and a Survivor is, among other things, the kind of person who wears suspenders and a belt -- with jogging pants. A certain amount of caution is built into the job: when what you do professionally is wander out to a brand-new planet, alone, and try to stay alive on it for a Standard year, you do get into the habit of putting safeties on your safeties. I had not been expecting to get myself lost -- who ever does? -- but, just in case I did -- or was forced to hole up for a while in a ship whose machinery couldn't be worked, say -- or sixty other odd and unlikely emergency situations -- I'd have something to fall back on. Not much, but just maybe enough.
All right: immediate survival as assured as I could make it, I had two questions.
1. Where the Hell was I?
2. What instruments could I trust to tell me the answer to 1?
Copyright © 2001 by Laurence M. Janifer