Ports of Call
By Vance, Jack
Tor Books Copyright © 1999 Vance, Jack
All right reserved.
As a boy Myron Tany had immersed himself in the lore of space exploration. In his imagination he wandered the far places of the Gaean Reach, thrilling to the exploits of star-dusters and locators; of pirates and slavers; of the IPCC and its brave agents.
By contrast his home in the bucolic village of Lilling on the pleasant world Vermazen seemed to encompass everything easy, tranquil, and soporific. Despite Myron's daydreams, his parents persisted in stressing the practicalities. "Most important is your education, if you are to become a financial analyst like your father," Myron was told. "After you finish your course at the Institute, that will be the time to flutter your wings for a bit before taking a post at the Exchange."
Myron, mild and dutiful by temperament, pushed the intoxicating images to the back of his mind, and enrolled at the College of Definable Excellences at the Varley Institute, across the continent at Salou Sain. His parents, who well understood his casual disposition, sent him off with a set of stern injunctions. He must concentrate with full diligence upon his studies. Scholastic achievement was highly important when a person prepared for a career.
Myron agreed to do his best, but found himself waylaid by indecision when it came time to propose a schedule of studies. Despite his best intentions, he could not put aside images of majestic space-packetssliding through the void, of cities redolent with strange smells, of taverns open to the warm winds where dusky maidens in purple skirts served foaming toddy in carved wooden beakers.
In the end Myron fixed upon a set of courses which, in his opinion, represented a compromise. The list included statistical mathematics, economic patterns of the Gaean Reach, general cosmology, the elementary theory of space propulsion, and Gaean anthropology. The program, so he assured his parents, was known as "Economic Fluxions," and provided a solid foundation upon which a good general education might be based. Myron's parents were not convinced. They knew that Myron's decorous manner, though at times a trifle absentminded, concealed a streak of irrational intransigence against which no argument could prevail. They would say no more; Myron must discover his mistakes for himself.
Myron could not dismiss the foreboding which his father's glum predictions had induced. As a consequence he attacked his work more vigorously than ever, and in due course he was matriculated with high honors.
His father suggested that, despite Myron's odd yearnings and unconventional course of studies, he might still qualify for a place in the lower echelons of the Exchange, from which he could launch his career. But now an unforeseen factor disturbed the flow of Myron's life. The disruptive influence was Myron's great-aunt, Dame Hester Lajoie, who had inherited great wealth from her first husband. Dame Hester maintained her splendid residence, Sarbiter House, on Dingle Terrace, at the southern edge of Salou Sain. During Myron's last term at Varley Institute, Dame Hester noticed that Myron was no longer a slender stripling with a vague and--as she put it--moony expression, but had become a distinctly good-looking young man, still slender, but of good physical proportions, with sleek blond hair and sea-blue eyes. Dame Hester enjoyed the presence of nice-looking young men: They acted, so she imagined, as a foil or, perhaps better to say, a setting, for the precious gem which was herself. For whatever reason, during Myron's last term, he resided at Sarbiter House with his great-aunt: an education in itself, so it turned out. Myron was not allowed to address her as "great-aunt," nor did she care for "Aunt Hester." She preferred "Dear Lady," or the soubriquet "Schutzel," as he chose.
Dame Hester fitted no familiar patterns or categories of Gaean womanhood. She was tall and gaunt, though she insisted upon the word "slim." She walked with long strides, head thrust forward, like a rapacious animal on the prowl. Her wild mass of mahogany-red hair framed a pale hollow-cheeked face. Her black eyes were surrounded by small creases and folds of skin, like parrot's eyes, and her long high-bridged nose terminated in a notable hook. It was a striking face, the mouth jerking and grimacing, the parrot's eyes snapping, her expression shifting to the flux of emotions. Her tempestuous moods, whims, quirks, and fancies were notorious. One day, at a garden party, a gentleman artlessly urged Dame Hester to write her memoirs. The fervor of her response caused him shock and dismay. "Ludicrous! Graceless! Stupid! A beastly idea! How can I write memoirs now, when I have scarcely started to live?"
The gentleman bowed. "I see my mistake; it shall never be repeated!"
An hour later the gentleman had recovered his aplomb sufficiently that he was able to describe the incident to a friend who, so he discovered, had also excited Dame Hester's wrath. After looking over his shoulder, the friend muttered, "I suspect the woman has forged a pact with the Devil!"
"Wrong!" muttered the more recent victim. "She is herself the Devil!"
"Hmm," said his friend. "You may be right; we must take care not to annoy her."
"That is impossible!"
"Well, then, let us consider the matter over another gill of this excellent malt."
For a fact Dame Hester was not always discreet. She conceived herself a creature of voluptuous charm for whom time had no meaning. Undeniably she made a gorgeous spectacle as she whirled about the haut monde, clad in remarkable garments of magenta, plum, lime-green, vermilion and black.
Dame Hester had recently won a judgment of slander against Gower Hatchkey, a wealthy member of the Gadroon Society. In satisfaction of the judgment she had accepted the space-yacht Glodwyn
Initially Dame Hester thought of the Glodwyn
only as proof that whoever chose to call her a "bald old harridan in a red fright-wig" must pay well for the privilege. She showed no interest in the vessel, and rather than inviting her friends to join her for a cruise, she prohibited them from so much as setting foot aboard the vessel. "Amazing!" she told Myron with a sardonic chuckle. "Suddenly I have dozens of new friends, all bright-eyed and cheerful as larks. They declare that, no matter what their personal inconvenience, they would never refuse to join me on an extended cruise."
"Nor would I!" said Myron wistfully. "It is an exciting prospect."
Dame Hester ignored him. She went on. "They'll drift away when they find that I am planning no cruises whatever."
Myron looked at her incredulously. "No cruises--ever?"
"Of course not!" snapped Dame Hester. "Spaceflight is a weird and unnatural ambition! I, for one, have neither time nor inclination to go hurtling through space in an oversize coffin. That is sheer lunacy and a mortification of both body and spirit. I shall probably put the vessel up for sale."
Myron had nothing to say.
Dame Hester watched him closely, parrot's eyes snapping. "I see that you are perplexed; you think me timid and orthodox. That is incorrect! I pay no heed to convention, and why is this? Because a youthful spirit defies the years! So you dismiss me as an eccentric madcap! What then? It is the price I pay for retaining the verve of youth, and it is the secret of my vivid beauty!"
"Ah yes, of course," said Myron. He added thoughtfully, "Still, it is a sad waste of a beautiful ship."
The remark irritated Dame Hester. "Myron, be practical! Why should I gad through empty space or trudge through dirty back alleys, testing out strange smells? I lack time for my normal pursuits here at home. At this very moment I have a dozen invitations in prospect; they cannot be ignored. I am in demand everywhere! The Golliwog Gala is upon us, and I am on the committee. If I could get away, I'd spend a week at Lulchion's Mountain Resort. The fresh air is like balm for my nerves. You must realize that I am constantly on the qui vive!"
"No doubt about that," said Myron.
Copyright 1998 by Jack Vance Continues...
Excerpted from Ports of Call by Vance, Jack Copyright © 1999 by Vance, Jack. Excerpted by permission.
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