It's a given: if the Hundred Concerns are determined to destroy you, fighting back is hopeless. But I was a proud and pigheaded man. I never doubted that I'd be vindicated, because justice and righteousness were on my side; so I fought. And of course I lost.
When my final appeal to the Interstellar Commerce Secretariat disciplinary tribunal was denied and I was Thrown Away, some important part of my personality shattered, plunging me beyond despair into a deadly apathy. My marriage to Joanna DeVet had ended, and I'd managed to alienate most of my family, my few remaining friends, and the handful of colleagues at the Secretariat who had stood by me during the scandal. I had no money left, no possibility of earning an honest livelihood, and as a Throwaway, I was eligible for only the most meager public assistance. My spiritless inertia made even the obvious solution impossible.
Finally, the only one who ever believed that I was not guilty as charged, my older sister Eve, offered to pay my passage to a planet in the Perseus Spur, a perfect T-i world where subsistence living was feasible and human predation at a minimum. I said: Why not? It made sense for me to keep decently out of the way until I found the courage to do what most people seemed to expect of me.
Improbably, I kept on living. Odder still, justice and righteousness did ultimately prevail. It took a while.
But I'm still convinced that the Hundred Concerns would never have come tumbling down, changing the course of human civilization in our galaxy and defeating the Haluk invasion, if the sea monster hadn't eaten my house.
The aftermath of a big storm had left the skies of Kedge-Lockaby overcast and windy that morning, hiding the comets and turning the normally gin-clear waters of the Brillig Reef murky with stirred-up sediment. The five sport divers who had hired me and Pernio, my aging submersible, for a holocam outing were noisily disappointed. Their names were Clive Leighton, Mario Volta, Oleg Bransky, Toku Matsudo, and Bron Elgar. They were a demanding and uncongenial bunch, a referral from an expensive hotel on the Big Beach.
All of them were fit and under forty. All were outfitted with the most sophisticated and expensive cameras and diving gear. All except the one named Bron (who was very quiet and in some indefinable way seemed to be the leader of the pack) were charter members of the "been there, done that" club of smartasses. Clive, Mario, Oleg, and Toku described themselves curtly as Rampart Starcorp executives, and I assumed that close-mouthed Bron was another one, perhaps their boss. Even under the best of circumstances the quintet would have been difficult. On a below-par diving day like that one promised to be, they were a total shuck.
My first mate, Kofi Rutherford, and I worked our buns off trying to please, but we bombed every time. We led a tour through the famous castle corals with their normally hilarious mome rath colonies--and the damned critters sulked in their holes. We moved on to my guaranteed crowd pleaser, the underwater forest of multicolored slithy toves--but their beauty was dimmed by the excessive amount of crud in the water. The albino borogoves drooped wanly and didn't sing a note. With the divers getting glummer and glummer, I tried to demonstrate the firecracker defense behavior of the brillig spongids at considerable risk to my own neck. Kofi coaxed a very pissed-off bandersnatch dodecapod partly out of its shell by offering himself as bait.
The clients kept their cameras going, but they were not impressed.
At the noon break, the diver named Bron was uncommunicative, while the other four complained that the buffet spread I had provided was not up to their gourmet standards. Furthermore, they groused, my watersleds were clunkers, my sub's head was out of toilet paper, and perhaps the trip should be cancelled and their card accounts credited.
I smiled a whole lot and pointed out that the charter agreement they had signed clearly stated that my fee was nonrefundable. But hey--things would be much better when we moved on to this great new location I had in mind. With luck, we'd even see the fabulously rare giant cometworms!
I drove Pernio to the Isle of Rum-Ti-Foo, where dramatic underwater cliffs, eroded lava formations, and rippling white laceweed usually made a striking backdrop for abundant schools of attractive piscoids. The water was a lot clearer when we went back down, but the cometworms were unfortunately still out to lunch, and so were the other spectacular varieties of marine life. All we encountered were small groups of cluckers, flame-vipers, and glass scorpions--common species that the divers had already bagged back in the tourist-trappy pools at the Big Beach. At 1500 hours they decided they'd had enough, reboarded the sub, and ordered me to return to port as soon as possible.
Was I really surprised when Pernio's temperamental magnetic-field guidance system chose that golden moment to crash?
I spent nearly an hour trying to fix the thing while the fuming sports peered over my shoulder and made unhelpful suggestions. Finally admitting defeat, I announced that since we were incapable of navigating underwater, I would have to crank up the sub's flybridge and drive us back to Eyebrow Cay on the surface. The exasperated clients demanded to be flown off the boat at my expense, but I politely referred them again to our charter agreement, Clause 7, where they had acknowledged that all activity aboard a Throwaway-owned vessel was undertaken at their own risk.
Then Bron said he'd pay for the lift-out. Double, if necessary. The other four perked up. But when I called Eyebrow's little skyport no local hoppercraft were available. The island's two rattletrap jetboat taxis were also engaged, so the sports were stuck with Pernio and a tedious seventy-kilometer slog home through rough seas.
The delay meant that they would miss the 1720 express shuttle back to Manukura on the Big Beach; and if we didn't get into port before the last shuttle flight at 1845, they'd be forced to spend the night at one of Eyebrow Cay's spartan guest houses. The men were staying at the Nikko Luxor, the best hotel on Kedge-Lockaby, and were in no mood for roughing it.
I smiled some more and told them I'd do my doodly damned-est to make knots. Then I ordered Kofi to break out the champagne that I keep aboard for special celebrations and disasters. He led the passengers below to the glasswall cabin, the snotty foursome still bitching bitterly and taciturn Bron looking like he'd swallowed a bad pup-oyster. I stayed topside on the extruded bridge, brooding, hoping nobody got too seasick.
Some submersibles moved decently on the surface, but old Pernio isn't one of them. She wallows, especially in the kind of ugly chop we had that day, and she is very slow. Feeling none too swift myself, I wondered how much it was going to cost to repair the broken MFGS. It was newer than the sub but still twenty years obsolete, and I doubted that even my handy pal Oren Vinyard would be able to find parts for it. I also wondered if the unhappy clients would badmouth me to the tour booker back at the Luxor, ensuring that Cap'n Helly's Dive Charters would be purged from their referral d-base.
I had long since kissed goodbye any hope of a decent tip.
Kofi came up after about ten minutes and we were able to talk privately for the first time since setting out that morning.
"They calm down any?" I asked without much hope.
He grinned at me. "The bubbly helped. Nobody's queasy. Better than that, the storm must have disturbed the thermocline. We just passed into Blue Gut, and what d'you know? An upwelling of abyssal water brought up a swarm of ruby prawns doing their mating dance. Prettiest goddamn sight you could ask for. All of the clients except Brother Bron grabbed their corders and started shooting their tiny brains out. Acing the rubies--even through the window--will give them something to brag about back at Manukura. No way anybody can tell they didn't make a wet shoot."
Kofi Rutherford was an embezzling accountant from Cush, hiding out from the enforcers of Omnivore Concern. Whenever I needed an extra hand, he helped out. Unfortunately for him, his ill-gotten fortune in negotiables had been ripped off in turn during a Qastt pirate boarding while his getaway starliner was en route from the Orion Arm to Kedge-Lockaby. So he couldn't buy a new identity as he'd originally planned, and ended up in the low-rent Out Islands instead of in a posh villa on the leeward coast of the Big Beach. He had a smaller submersible of his own called Black Coffee, presently undergoing major repairs after an encounter with an uncharted shoal near the Devil's Teakettle.
I said, "So old Bron is the only one still cheesed off ... Funny, when they came to my place this morning, I had the feeling I'd met that joker before."
Kofi only grunted at that. Past lives are not an acceptable topic of light conversation among the Kedgeree Throwaway community. Moving easily on the rolling sub's yielding, rubbery skin, he went to the aft dorsal flat where the diving equipment had been left in a heap, pulled a freshwater line out of its housing, and began to hose down the gear.
On an impulse, I queried the bridge computer, calling up the mystery client's full name and particulars as he had given them that morning. Bronson Elgar: Suite 1631 at the Nikko Luxor, Manukura. He was not a middle-management exec like the other four, as I had automatically assumed. Instead of a Rampart corporate card he carried a personal niobium Amex--which means Be Very Nice to Me, I Have Unlimited Credit. The only address he had given was Chesapeake Holdings SC, an e-site on Earth. I queried CorpInfoNet about the outfit and got no data available.
Right. Chesapeake was a front for one of the big Concerns. They might as well have put up a 3D sign.
Bronson Elgar's name was completely unfamiliar, as was his general appearance--brownish hair, nonremarkable coarse features, medium height, husky build. Only his exceptionally close-set eyes, dark blue and opaque as small capped lenses (and maybe iridoplasticized to thwart standard CHW identification procedures), struck a memory chord. I was certain that I'd felt those eyes drilling into me before, undoubtedly on Earth, maybe in the capital.
Maybe in another face.
He wasn't a blast from the past from ICS, and I doubted that I knew him from any of the other Commonwealth regulatory agencies or CCID liaison in Toronto. That left the mug base--but my mnemonic flicker didn't suggest that the guy was a crook, either.
Damn. Who was he? And why did my long-junked professional instincts seem to be telling me it was important to know?
The sky cleared, too late to do any good, and Kedge-Lockaby's comets came out to play, chalk squiggles and scrawls among puffy fair-weather cumulus clouds. The sun headed for its plunge beneath the horizon just as we passed through Eyebrow Cay's surf-pounded ring reef into the calm green lagoon. Kofi, who'd mostly kept quiet throughout the return voyage, had finished packing the rinsed equipment into the owner's individual mesh-topped bags. He sat astern on the flat, one leg hooked around a stanchion, and read the evening news on a magslate. He was dressed in salt-bleached dungarees, a singlet with blue and white stripes, and a flat-crowned straw hat he claimed to have won in a crap game from a banana-boat loader in Grugru City. I wore torn chino pants, oversized mirror sunglasses, and a light salty crust on my moderately impressive naked torso.
The clients had refused to come up and view what was turning into a gorgeous purple and amber sunset, but tipsy laughter echoed from below. When I sent Kofi to check on them, he reported that they had demolished not only the three bottles of cheap champagne but also my medicinal fifth of Jack Daniel's sourmash Tennessee sippin' whiskey. They'd taken great pictures of the big glowing red crustaceoids through the underwater window. Also contributing to the mellower mood was the fact that we weren't going to miss the 1845 shuttle after all.
Pernio chugged around the golden limestone promontory we call Cheddar Head, where fingerwood trees were writhing picturesquely in the breeze. As we headed for the harbor I peered idly landward toward the little cove where I lived. What I saw made me squawk in disbelief and grab the oculars from the console of the flybridge. Enhanced survey of the shore confirmed what the eyeball scan had adumbrated.
"What, man, what?" Kofi exclaimed.
"Look for yourself." I tossed him the ocs and then burst into helpless laughter. "The end of a perfect day."
"Lord God, Helly! It's a beached sea toad, right in front of your place. Biggest I've ever seen! Mother's gotta be twelve, thirteen meters across."
"Gone," I gasped, between bouts of crazy cackling. "Sweet Jesus! Totally gone."
"Son of a bitch." Kofi's voice was soft with awe as he studied the stupefying scene. "I think you're right. If that don't pucker the butt! But whoever heard of a sea toad coming inside the reef? They never leave deep water."
I'd finally stopped laughing. "This one did. And it ate my house."
I hadn't yet got around to wondering why.
When I first came to Kedge-Lockaby in 2229, I was in no condition to appreciate its natural charms. It was enough that K-L was a freesoil planet none of the Concerns or Starcorps cared a damn about, where nobody asked a down-and-outer nosy questions and the living was easy. Best of all, the place was fourteen thousand light-years away from Earth, Interstellar Commerce Secretariat headquarters, and my father.
After I began to take cognizance of my surroundings, I discovered a pretty, mostly ocean-covered world with one large moon, having a superfluity of comets in its solar system that had inhibited extensive exploitation even after the broom technology was perfected. There was a single continent that Kedgerees called the Big Beach, along with skeins of volcanic islands and gorgeous low-lying atolls strewn through equatorial latitudes. The only sizable municipality was Manukura, the capital. No Indigenous Sapients had evolved on the planet to complicate human colonization. The lesser biota was genome-compatible and inoffensive, with a few conspicuous exceptions. The winds blew briskly all year round, delighting sailboarders, and the shallower portions of the sea were a sport diver's paradise.
Like most of the other Perseus worlds, Kedge-Lockaby used to belong to Galapharma AC, colossus of the drug Concerns and chop-licking rival of Rampart Starcorp. Even though K-L had no significant biotech assets, Gala had developed it as an executive retreat and playground for stakeholders assigned to more rugged worlds of theirs in Zone 23. About half a century ago, when the big Concern got tired of fighting off the Qastt and Haluk--and also erroneously thought it had drained the zone of significant resources--Galapharma let Kedge-Lockaby go wildcat along with their other Spur worlds. This serious mistake eventually opened the way for Rampart's great expansion.
My sister Eve, who was Rampart's Chief Transport and Distribution Officer, had once told me it would not have been cost-effective for the Starcorp to put in a development claim for K-L, so the little world remained freesoil. Tourists came in modest numbers to loll on the luminous seashores, make holovids of the weird and wonderful marine critters, and gape at the extraordinary comets that decorated the sky. Others who found the planet appealing included congenital loafers without means, artistic disciples of Paul Gauguin, romantics afflicted with beachcomberitis, sailing nuts, and burnt-out cases like me.
Unlike the affluent holidaymakers, the riffraff often settled in to stay.
On Kedge-Lockaby even the rawest newcomer could survive on a shoestring. All you had to do was throw up a grass shack on the shore, catch fish analogues and molluscoids in the waters outside the front door to keep body and soul together, and peddle the surplus to seaside resort hotels for booze or drug money.
For over a year I lived that way, using the nom-de-beach Helmut Icicle. Most people just called me Helly. I'm kind of an old-fashioned guy, not much into recreational pharmaceuticals or buzz-heading, and my anodyne of choice was rotgut Danaëan whiskey. I drifted along, snorkeling and scubadiving with borrowed gear when I wasn't lost in a self-pitying ethanol torpor. From time to time I would aim a sailboard straight out to sea, determined to quit futzing around and do it.
But I never did. After a while I admitted to myself that I probably never would.
My big sister's bailiwick, Tyrins, was a scant six light-years away from K-L, and her spies must have told her about my slow emergence from the swamps of alcoholic nonentity. One day a StelEx messenger came to my squalid seaside hovel, confirmed that I was the ne'er-do-well known as Helmut Icicle, and handed me an envelope. Inside was a draft payable to a local marine broker and a note that said:
Happy birthday. It's all yours, and I don't give a rat's ass whether you want it or not. The boat outfit will give you piloting lessons and keep you powered up for a year. After that, you're on your own.
I was indeed thirty-six years old, by Earth reckoning, although at that low point in my life I probably looked closer to fifty. The vintage Mawson submersible my compassionate sister had bought for me was somewhat older than that but still in good shape--and as Eve had planned, it intrigued the hell out of me and proved an irresistible temptation to sobriety. I named the boat Pernio (meaning frostbite) in an ironic tribute to my estranged clan, easily learned how to operate it, and undertook an extended tour of Kedge-Lockaby's underwater magnificences.
Somewhere along the way I rediscovered sanity, a fair state of bodily well-being, and even fun. Among the vacation visitors to the planet were friendly and needy ladies who looked me over, weren't too repelled by what they saw, and went riding with me in my little old submarine. Some of them also wanted to hire the boat for sport-diving jaunts with their friends. This was a scary idea, dangerously akin to earning a living, but at last I agreed. If I wasn't going to snuff myself, I figured I might as well party.
It wasn't long before the other charter-sub skippers of Manukura, jealous sonsabitches all, threatened to blow the whistle on my rump operation and/or run me off the Big Beach. I cut them off at the knees by getting a commercial license, a laughably simple matter on a wildcat planet, and painting Pernio a vivid buttercup-yellow. The new hue, plus a thirdhand stereo system stocked with appropriate pop classics by the Beatles, Jimmy Buffet, and the Junkanoo Jokesters, drove the female vacationers into raptures of nostalgia and ensured full bookings for the season.
My accelerating slide uphill toward respectability made me uneasy in more ways than one. Kedge-Lockaby was a long way from Earth, but there was always a chance that one of the visitors would recognize me. Nevertheless I would probably have stayed in Manukura indefinitely, anonymous and unnoticed, if it hadn't been for Superintendent Jake Silver, the head of Kedge-Lockaby's tiny Public Security Force. He found out who I really was when I filed an iris-print at his office along with my application for permanent-resident status.
Jake was an aging, potbellied, pragmatic sort of cop with an air of melancholic disillusion, doing the best he could with minimal resources on a backwater planet far from the center of the Commonwealth. He kept my secret, only now and again picking what was left of my brains when some matter involving Concern sharp practice crossed his desk. I gave him my grudging cooperation for as long as I lived on the Big Beach because I suspected that he was another man who'd been shafted somewhere along the line and tossed into the discard. All the same, it was a relief when I finally earned enough credit to be able to move to Eyebrow Cay in the Out Islands, far away from Jake's well-meaning attempts to make a new man of me and restore my citizenship.
Who needed it? I'd spent nearly a third of my life trying to stem the tide of commercialized corruption in the Human Commonwealth of Worlds and accomplished next to nothing. Every year the elected government got more feeble and the Hundred Concerns got stronger, tightening their grip on the galactic economy. Within another decade Big Business would control every aspect of human civilization, eliminating the last remnants of political opposition as efficiently as it had eliminated me.
Fuck 'em all. Throwaway status suited me just fine.
On Eyebrow Cay, a couple of thousand kilometers west of the Big Beach, I hired Pernio out to the more venturesome sport divers and completed my rehabilitation. The skippers of the local mosquito fleet and the other island denizens were a laid-back lot, and I forged genuine friendships for the first time.
I lived on the sub until I could afford to buy cheapo domiciliary modules, then built myself a neat little house with a really handsome bathroom and kitchen. Its front porch had a beautiful view of the water and invisible screening to keep the jellybugs and stinkmoths at bay. I wove mats for the floors and painted sincere, klutzy seascapes for the walls. Piece by piece I assembled chef-quality cooking equipment, learned how to use it, and achieved a state of domestic competence that would have astounded my long-suffering ex-wife, Joanna.
At night, when the stars of the Perseus Spur winked and twinkled amid the comets, I would sit on the porch in my handmade wicker chair sipping my allocated single highball of the day, now made with genuine bootleg terrestrial corn squeezings, and look for the bright, nearby star that shone on Tyrins, Eve's planet. Sometimes I'd make a stab at finding as many of the other sixty-three Rampart World suns as I could, brooding over what my life might have been if I'd done as my father had demanded, instead of following my own stubborn aspirations and ending up consummately screwed.
The damned sea monster with the perverted appetite started me on the road to finding out.
From the Paperback edition.