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"Maybe," the senior Population Council delegate from Las Sands said hopefully, "it was an honest error. Maybe they thought the material was intended for medical students or something."
Ethan wondered why Roachie had dragged him along to this emergency session. Expert witness? Another time, he might have been awed by his august surroundings; the deep carpeting, the fine view of the capital, the long polished ripple-wood table and the grave, bearded faces of the elders reflected in it. Now he was so angry he barely noticed them. "That doesn't explain why there were 38 in a box marked 50," he snapped. "Or those damned cow ovaries—do they imagine we breed minotaurs here?"
The junior representitive from Deleara remarked wistfully,"Our box was totally empty."
"Faugh!" said Ethan. "Nothing so completely screwed up could be either honest or an error—' Desroches, looking exasperated, motioned him down, and Ethan subsided. "Gotta be deliberate sabotage," Ethan continued to him in a whisper.
"Later," Desroches promised. "We'll get to that later."
The chairman finished recording the official inventory reports from all nine Rep Centers, filed them in his comconsole, and sighed. "How the hell did we pick this supplier, anyway?" he asked, semi-rhetorically.
The head of the procurement subcommittee dropped two tablets of medication into a glass of water, and laid his head on his arms to watch them fizz. "They were the lowest bidder," he said morosely.
"You put the future of Athos in the hands of the lowest bidder?" snarled another member.
"You all approved it, remember?" replied the procurement head, stung into animation. "You insisted on it, in fact, when you found the next bidder would only send thirty for the same price. Fifty different cultures promised for each Rep Center—you practically peed yourself with glee, as I recall—"
"Let us keep these proceedings official, please," the chairman warned. "We have no time to waste either apportioning or evading blame. The galactic census ship breaks orbit in four days, and is the only vector for our decisions until next year."
"We should have our own jump ships," remarked a member. "Then we wouldn't be treed like this, at the mercy of their schedule."
"Military's been begging for some for years," said another.
"So which Rep Centers do you want to trade in to pay for them?" asked a third sarcastically. "We and they are the two biggest items in the budget, next to the terraforming that grows the food for our children to eat while they're growing up—do you want to stand up and tell the people that their child-allotment is to be halved to give those clowns a pile of toys that produce nothing for the economy in return?"
"Nothing until now," muttered the second speaker cogently.
"Not to mention the technology we'd have to import—and what, pray tell, are we going to export to pay for it? It took all our surplus just to—"
"So make the jump ships pay for themselves. If we had them, we could export something and obtain enough galactic currency to—"
"It would directly contravene the purposes of the Founding Fathers to seek contact with that contaminated culture," interjected a fourth man. "They put us at the end of this long pipeline in the first place precisely to protect us from—"
The chairman tapped the table sharply. "Debates on larger issues belong in the General Council, gentlemen. We are met today to address a specific problem, and quickly." His flat, irritated tone did not invite contradiction. There was a general stirring and shuffling of notes and straightening of spines.
The junior member from Barca, poked by his senior, cleared his throat. "There is one possible solution, without going off-planet. We could grow our own."
"It's exactly because our cultures won't grow any more that we—" began another man.
"No, no, I understand that—none better," said the Barca man, a Chief of Staff like Deroches, hastily. "I meant, ah ..." he cleared his throat again. "Grow some female fetuses of our own. They need not even be brought to term, quite. Then raid them for ovarian material and, er, begin again."
There was a revolted silence around the table. The chairman looked like a man sucking on a lemon. The member from Barca shrank in his seat.
The chairman spoke at last. "We're not that desperate yet. Although it may be well to have spoken what others will surely think of eventually."
"It needn't be public knowledge," the Barca man offered.
"I should hope not," agreed the chairman dryly. “The possibility is noted. Members will mark this section of the record classified. But I point out, for all, that this proposal does not address the other, perennial problem faced by this Council, and Athos: maintaining genetic variety. It had not pressed on our generation—until now—but we all knew it had to be faced in the future." His tones grew more mellow. "We would be shirking our responsibilities to ignore it now and let it be dumped on our grandsons in the form of a crisis."
There was a murmur of relief around the table, as logic safely propped emotional conviction. Even the junior member from Barca looked happier. "Quite." "Exactly." "Just so—" "Better to kill two chickens with one stone, if we can—"
"Immigration would help," put in another member, who doubled, one week a year, as Athos's Department of Immigration and Naturalization. "If we could get some."
"How many immigrants came on this year's ship?" asked the man across from him.
"Hell. Is that an all-time low?"
"No, year before last there were only two. And two years before that there weren't any." The Immigration man sighed. "By rights we ought to be flooded with refugees. Maybe the Founding Fathers were just too thorough about picking a planet away from it all. I sometimes wonder if anyone out there has heard of us."
"Maybe the knowledge is suppressed, by, you know—them."
"Maybe the men trying to get here are turned away at Kline Station," opined Deroches. "Maybe only a few are allowed to trickle in."
"It's true," agreed the immigration man, "the ones we do get tend to be a little—well—strange."
"No wonder, considering they're all products of that, uh, traumatic genesis. Not their fault."
The chairman tapped the table again. "We shall continue this later. We are agreed, then, to pursue our first choice of an off-planet supply of cultured tissue—"
Ethan, still fuming, steamed into speech. "Sirs! You're not thinking of going back to those scalpers—" Desroches pulled him firmly back into his seat.
"From some more reputable source," the chairman finished smoothly, with an odd look at Ethan. Not disapproval; a sort of smiling, silky smugness. "Gentlemen delegates?"
A murmur of approval rose around the table.
"The ayes have it; it is so moved. I think we also agree not to make the same mistake twice; no more sight-unseen purchases. It follows that we must now choose an agent. Dr. Desroches?"
Desroches stood. "Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I have given some thought to this problem. Of course, the ideal purchasing agent must first of all have the technical know-how to evaluate, choose, package, and transport the cultures. That narrows the possible choices considerably, right there. He must also be a man of proven integrity, not merely because he will be responsible for nearly all the foreign exchange Athos can muster this year—"
"All of it," the chairman corrected quietly. "The General Council approved it this morning."
Desroches nodded, "And not only because the whole future of Athos will depend on his good judgement, but also that he have the moral fibre to resist, er, whatever it is out there that, ah, he may encounter."
Women, of course, and whatever it was they did to men. Was Roachie volunteering, Ethan wondered? He certainly knew the technical end. Ethan admired his courage, even if his self-description was bordering on the swelled-headed. Probably needed it, to psyche himself up. Ethan did not begrudge it. For Desroches to leave his two sons, on whom he doted, behind for a whole year . . .
"He should also be a man free of family responsibilities, that his absence not put too great a burden on his designated alternate," Desroches went on.
Every bearded face around the table nodded judiciously.
"—and finally, he should be a man with the energy and conviction to carry on regardless of the obstacles fate or, uh, whatever, may throw in his path." Desroches' hand fell firmly to Ethan's shoulder; the expression of smug approval on the chairman's face broadened to a smile.
Ethan's half-formed words of congratulation and commiseration froze in his throat. Running through his formerly-teeming brain was only one helpless, recycling phrase: I'll get you for this, Roachie...
"Gentlemen, I give you Dr. Urquhart." Desroches sat, and grinned cheerily at Ethan. "Now stand up and talk," he urged.
The silence in Desroches' ground car on the drive back to Sevarin was long and sullen. Desroches broke it a little nervously. "Are you willing to admit you can handle it yet?"
"You set me up for that," growled Ethan at last. "You and the chairman had it all cooked up in advance."
"Had to. I figured you'd be too modest to volunteer."
"Modest, hell. You just figured I'd be easier to nail if I wasn't a moving target."
"I thought you were the best man for the job. Left to its own devices, God the Father knows what the committee would have picked. Maybe that idiot Frankin from Barca. Would you want to put the future of Athos in his hands?"
"No," Ethan began to agree reluctantly, then hardened. "Yes! Let him get lost out there."
Desroches grinned, teeth glinting in the faint tinted light from the control panel. "But the social duty credits you'll be getting—think of it! Three sons, a decade's accumulation in the normal course of events, earned in just one year. Generous, I think."
Ethan had a sudden poignant vision of a holocube for his own desk, filled with life and laughter. Ponies indeed, and long holidays sailing in the sunshine, passing on the subtleties of wind and water as his father had taught him, and the tumble, noise, and chaos of a home teeming with the future. . . . But he said glumly, "If I succeed, and if I get back. And anyway, I have enough social duty credits for a son and a half. It would have meant a hell of a lot more if they'd coughed up enough credits to qualify my designated alternate."
"If you'll forgive my frankness, people like your foster brother are just the reason social duty credits may not be transferred," said Desroches. "He's a charming young man, Ethan, but even you must admit he's totally irresponsible."
"He's young," argued Ethan uneasily. "He just needs a bit more time to settle."
"Three years younger than you, I believe? Bull. He'll never settle as long as he can sponge off you. I think you'd do a lot better for yourself to find a qualified D.A. and make him your partner than try to make a D.A. out of Janos."
"Let's leave my personal life out of this, huh?" snapped Ethan, secretly stung; then added somewhat inconsistently, "which this mission is going to totally disrupt, by the way. Thanks heaps." He hunched down in the passenger side as the car knifed the night.
"It could be worse," said Desroches. "We really could have activated your Army Reserve status, made it a military order, and sent you out on a corpsman's pay. Fortunately, you saw the light."
"I didn't think you were bluffing."
"We weren't." Desroches sighed, and grew less jocular. "We didn't pick you casually, Ethan. You're not going to be an easy man to replace at Sevarin."
Desroches dropped Ethan off at the garden apartment he shared with his foster brother, and continued on out of town with a reminder of an early start at the Rep Center tomorrow. Ethan sighed acknowledgement. Four days. Two only allowed to orient his chief assistant to his sudden new duties and wind up his own personal affairs—should he make a will? —one day of briefing in the capital by the Population Council, and then report to the shuttleport. Ethan's brain balked at the impossibility of it all.
So much would simply have to be left hanging at the Rep Center. He thought suddenly of Brother Haas's JJY son, successfully started three months ago. Ethan had planned to personally officiate at his birthday, as he had personally seen to his fertilization; alpha and omega, to savor however briefly and vicariously the joyous fruits of his labors. He would be long gone before that date.
Approaching his door, he tripped over Janos's electric bike, dumped carelessly between the flower tubs. Much as Ethan admired Janos's fine idealistic indifference to material wealth, he wished he'd take better care of his things—but it had always been so.
Janos was the son of Ethan's own father's D.A.; the two had raised all their sons together, as they had run their business together, an experimental and ultimately successful fish farm on the South Province coast, as they had melded their lives together, seam-lessly. Between son and foster-son no line was ever drawn. Ethan the eldest, bookish and inquisitive, destined from birth to higher education and higher service; Steve and Stanislaus, born each within a week of the other, each flatteringly bred from their father's partner's ovarian culture stock; Janos, boundlessly energetic, witty as quicksilver; Bret, the baby, the musical one. Ethan's family. He had missed them, achingly, in the army, in school, in his too-good-to-be-passed-up new job at Sevarin.
When Janos had followed Ethan to Sevarin, eager to trade country life for town life, Ethan had been comforted. No matter that it had interrupted Ethan's tentative social experimentation. Ethan, shy in spite of his achievements, loathed the singles scene and was glad of an excuse to escape it. They had fallen comfortably back into the pattern of their early teenage sexual intimacy. Ethan sought comfort tonight, more inwardly frightened than even his sarcastic banter with Desroches had revealed.
The apartment was dark, too quiet. Ethan made a rapid pass through all the rooms, then, reluctantly, checked the garage.
His lightflyer was gone. Custom-built, first fruits of a year's savings from his recently augmented salary as department head; Ethan had owned it all of two weeks. He swore, then choked back the oath. He really had intended to let Janos try it, once the newness had worn off. Too little grace time left to start an argument over trifles.
He returned to the apartment, dutifully considered bed. No—too little time. He checked the comconsole. No message, naturally. Janos had doubtless intended to be home before Ethan. He tried the comlink to the lightflyer's number; no answer. He smiled suddenly, punched up a city grid on the comconsole, and entered a code. The beacon was one of the little refinements of the luxury model—and there it was, parked not two kilometers away at Founders' Park. Janos partying nearby? Very well, Ethan would get out of his domestic rut and join him tonight, and doubtless startle him considerably by not being angry about the unauthorized borrowing.
The night wind ruffled his dark hair and chilled him awake as he neared Founders' Park on the purring electric bike. But it was the sight of the emer-fency vehicles' flashing yellow lights that froze his ones. God the Father—no, no; no need to assume that just because Janos and the rescue squad were in the same vicinity, there was some causal connection. No ambulance, no city police, just a couple of garage tows. Ethan relaxed slightly. But if there was no blood on the pavement, why the fascinated crowd? He brought the bike to a halt near the grove of rustling oak trees, and followed the spectators' upturned faces and the white fingers of the searchlights into the high leafy foliage.
His lightflyer. Parked in the top of a 25-meter-tall oak tree.
No—crashed in the top of the 25-meter oak tree. Vanes bent all to hell and gone, half-retracted wings crumpled, doors sprung open, gaping to the ground; his heart nearly failed him at the sight of the dangling empty pilot restraint harness hanging out. The wind sighed, the branches creaked ominously, and the crowd did a hasty prudent backstep. Ethan surged through them. No blood on the pavement . . .
“Hey, mister, you better not stand under there."
"That's my flyer," Ethan said. "It's in a damned tree ..." He cleared his throat to bring his voice back down an octave to its normal range. There was a certain hypnotizing fascination to it. He tore himself away, whirled to grab the garageman by his jacket.
"The guy who was flying that—where . . . ?"
"Oh, they took him off hours ago."
"Hell no. He was feeling no pain at all. His friend got a cut on the head, but I think they just sent him home in the ambulance. City police station, I imagine, for the driver. He was singing."
"You say you own this vehicle?" a man in a city parks department uniform accosted Ethan.
"I'm Dr. Ethan Urquhart, yes?"
The parks man pulled out a comm panel and punched up a half-completed form. "Do you realize that tree is nearly 200 years old? Planted by the Founders themselves—irreplaceable historic value. And it's split halfway down—"
"Got it, Fred," came a shout from on high.
"—responsibility for damages—"
A creak of strained wood, a rustle from above, an "Ah," from the crowd—a high-pitched rising whine as an antigrav unit suddenly failed to phase properly.
"Îh, shit!" came a yowl from the treetops. Òhe crowd scattered with cries of warning.
Five meters per second, thought Ethan with hysterical irrelevancy. Times 25 meters times how many kilograms?
The nose-down impact on the granite cobblestones starred the gleaming red outer shell of the flyer with fracture lines from front to rear. In the sudden silence after the great crunch Ethan could quite clearly hear an elfin tinkle of expensive electronic instrumentation within, coming to rest a little out of phase with the main mass.
Janos's blond head turned, startled, at Ethan's tread upon the tiles of the Sevarin City Police Station.
"Oh, Ethan," he said plaintively. "I've had a hell of a day." He paused. "Uh—did you find your flyer?"
"It'll be all right, just leave it to me. I called the garage."
The bearded police sergeant with whom Janos was dealing across the counter snickered audibly. "Maybe it'll hatch out some tricycles up there."
"It's down," said Ethan shortly. "And I've paid the bill for the tree."
"How?" asked Ethan. "The tree, I mean."
"It was the birds, Ethan," Janos explained.
"The birds. Force you down, did they?"
Janos laughed uneasily. Sevarin's avian population, all descendants of mutated chickens escaped from the early settlers and gone feral, were a diverse lean lot already hinting at speciation, but still not exactly great flyers. They were considered something of a municipal nuisance; Ethan glanced covertly at the police sergeant's face, and was relieved by a marked lack of concern at the birds' fate. He didn't think he could face a bill for chickens.
"Yeah, uh," said Janos, "you see, we found out we could tumble "em—make a close pass, they'd go whipping around like a whirligig. Just like flying a fighter, and dive-bombing the enemy ..." Janos's hands began to make evocative passes through the air, heroic starfighters.
Athos had had no military enemies in 200 years. Ethan gritted his teeth, maintained reason. "And ended up dive-bombing the tree in the dark instead. I suppose I can see how that could happen."
"Oh, it was before dark."
Ethan made a quick calculation. "Why weren't you at work?"
"It was your fault, really. If you hadn't left before dawn on that joy junket to the capital, I wouldn't have overslept."
"I reset the alarm."
"You know that's never enough."
True. Getting Janos upright and correctly aimed out the door in the morning was exhausting as setting-up exercises.
"Anyway," Janos continued, "the boss got shitty about it. The upshot was, uh—I got fired this morning." He seemed to be finding his boots suddenly very interesting.
"Just for being late? That's unreasonable. Look, I'll talk to the guy in the morning—somehow—if you want, and—"
"Uh, don't—don't bother."
Ethan looked at Janos's sunny, even features more closely. No contusions, no bandages on those long lithe limbs, but he was definitely favoring his right elbow. It might just be from the flyer accident—but Ethan had seen that particular pattern of barked knuckles before.
"What happened to your arm?"
"The boss and his pet goon got a little rough, showing me out the door."
"Damn it! They can't—"
"It was after I took a swing at him," Janos admitted reluctantly, shifting.
Ethan counted to ten, and resumed breathing. No time. No time. "So you spent the afternoon getting drunk with—who?"
"Nick," said Janos, and hunched, waiting for the explosion.
"Mm. I suppose that accounts for the onslaught on the birds, then." Nick was Janos's buddy for all the competitive games that left Ethan cold; in his darker and more paranoid moments, Ethan occasionally suspected Janos of having something on the side with him. No time now. Janos unhunched, looking surprised, when no explosion came.
Ethan dug out his wallet and turned politely to the police sergeant. "What will it take to spring the Scourge of the Sparrows out of here, Officer?"
"Well, sir—unless you wish to make some further charge with respect to your vehicle ..."
Ethan shook his head.
"It's all been taken care of in the night court. He's free to go."
Ethan was relieved, but astonished. "No charges? Not even for—"
"Oh, there were charges, sir. Operating a vehicle while intoxicated, to the public danger, damaging city property—and the fees for the rescue teams ..." The sergeant detailed these at some length.
"Did they give you severance pay, then?" Ethan asked Janos, running a confused mental calculation from his foster brother's last known financial balance.
"Uh, not exactly. C'mon, let's go home. I've got a hell of a headache."
The sergeant counted back the last of Janos's personal property; Janos scribbled his name on the receipt without even glancing at it.
Janos made the noise of the electric bike an excuse not to continue the conversation during the ride home. This was a strategic error, as it allowed Ethan time to review his mental arithmetic.
"How'd you buy your way out of that?" Ethan asked, closing the front door behind him. He glanced across the front room at the digital; in three hours he was supposed to be getting up for work.
"Don't worry," said Janos, kicking his boots under the couch and making for the kitchen. "It's not coming out of your pocket this time."
"Whose, then? You didn't borrow money from Nick, did you?" Ethan demanded, following.
"Hell, no. He's broker than I am." Janos pulled a bulb of beer from the cupboard, bit the refrigeration tube, and drew. "Hair of the dog. Want one?" he offered slyly.
Ethan refused to be baited into a diversionary lecture on Janos's drinking habits, clearly the intent. "Yeah."
Janos raised a surprised eyebrow, and tossed him a bulb. Ethan took it and flopped into a chair, legs stretched out. A mistake, sitting; the day's emotional exhaustion washed over him. "The fines, Janos."
Janos sidled off. "They took them out of my social duty credits, of course."
"Oh, God!" Ethan cried wearily. "I swear you've been going backwards ever since you got out of the damned army! Anyone could have enough credits to be a D.A. by now, without volunteering for anything." A red urge to take Janos and bash his head into the wall shook him, restrained only by the terrible effort required to stand up again. "I can't leave a baby with you all day if you're going to go on like this!"
"Hell, Ethan, who's asking you to? I got no time for the little shit-factories. They cramp your style. Well—not your style, I suppose. You're the one who's all hot for paternity, not me. Working at that Center overtime has turned your brain. You used to be fun." Janos, apparently recognizing he had crossed the line of Ethan's amazing tolerance at last, was retreating toward the bathroom.
"The Rep Centers are the heart of Athos," said Ethan bitterly. "All our future. But you don't care about Athos, do you? You don't care about anything but what's inside your own skin."
"Mm," Janos, judging from his brief grin about to try to turn Ethan's anger with an obscene joke, took in his dark face and thought better of it.
The struggle was suddenly too much for Ethan. He let his empty beer bulb drop to the floor from slack fingers. His mouth twisted in sardonic resignation. "You can have the lightflyer, when I leave."
Janos paused, shocked white. "Leave? Ethan, I never meant—"
"Oh. Not that kind of leave. This has nothing to do with you. I forgot I hadn't told you yet—the Population Council's sending me on some urgent business for them. Classified. Top secret. To Jackson's Whole. I'll be gone at least a year."
"Now who doesn't care?" said Janos angrily. "Off for a year without so much as a by-your-leave. What about me? What am I supposed to do while you're ..." Janos's voice plowed into silence. "Ethan—isn't Jackson's Whole a planet? Out there? With—with— them on it?"
Ethan nodded. "I leave in four—no, three days, on the galactic census ship. You can have all my things. I don't know—what's going to happen out there."
Janos's chiseled face was drained sober. In a small voice he said, "I'll go clean up."
Comfort at last, but Ethan was asleep in his chair before Janos came out of the bathroom.