Lois McMaster Bujold, "ETHAN OF ATHOS"

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Kline Station was an accretion of three hundred years; even so Ethan was unprepared for the size of it, and the complexity. It straddled a region of space where no less than six fruitful jump routes emerged within a reasonable sublight boost of each other. The dark star nearby hosted no planets at all, and so Kline Station rode a slow orbit far out of its gravity well, cresting the stygian cold.

Kline Station had been full of history even when Athos was first settled; it had been the jumping-off point for the Founding Fathers' noble experiment. A poor fortress, but a great place to do business, it had changed hands a number of times as one or another of its neighbors sought it as a guardian of its gates, not to mention a source of cash flow. Presently it maintained a precarious political independence based on bribery, determination, suppleness in business practice, and a stiffness in internal loyalty bordering on patriotism. A hundred thousand citizens lived in its mazy branches, augmented at peak periods of traffic by perhaps a fifth as many transients.

So much Ethan had learned from the crew of the census courier. The crew of eight was all male not, Ethan found, out of regular rule or respect for the laws of Athos, but from the disinclination of female employees of the Bureau to spend four months on the round-trip voyage without a downside leave. It gave Ethan a little breather, before being plunged into galactic culture. The crew was courteous to him, but not so encouraging as to break through Ethan's own timid reserve, and so he had spent much of the two months en route in his own cabin, studying and worrying.

As preparation, he'd decided to read all the articles by and about women in his Betan Journals of Reproductive Medicine. There was the ship's library, of course, but its contents certainly had not been approved by the Athosian Board of Censors, and Ethan was not really sure what degree of dispensation he was supposed to have on this mission. Better to stock up on virtue, he reasoned glumly; he was probably going to need it.

Women. Uterine replicators with legs, as it were. He was not sure if they were supposed to be inciters to sin, or sin was inherent in them, like juice in an orange, or sin was caught from them like a virus. He should have paid more attention during his boyhood religious instruction, not that the subject had ever been anything but mysteriously talked around. And yet, when he'd read one Journal edited of names as a scientific test, he'd found the articles indistinguishable as to the sex of the author.

This made no sense. Maybe it was only their souls, not their brains, that were so different? The one article he'd been sure was a man's work turned out to be by a Betan hermaphrodite, a sex which hadn't even existed when the Founding Fathers had fled to Athos, and where did they fit in? He lost himself, for a while, imagining the flap in Athosian Customs should such a creature present itself for entry, as the bureaucrats tried to decide whether to admit its male-ness or exclude its femaleness—it would probably be referred to a committee for about a century, by which time the hermaphrodite would have conveniently solved the problem by dying of old age...

Kline Station Customs were made nearly equally tedious by the most thorough microbiological inspection and control procedure Ethan had ever seen. Kline Station, it appeared, cared not if you were smuggling guns, drugs, or political refugees, as long as your shoes harbored no mutant fungi. Ethan's terror and—he admitted to himself—ravenous curiosity had mounted to a fever when he was at last permitted to walk through the flex tube from the courier into the rest of the universe.

The rest of the universe was disappointing at first glance, a dingy chilly freighter docking bay. The mechanical working side of Kline Station, to be sure, like the backside of a tapestry that probably made a fine show from some more intended perspective. Ethan puzzled over which of a dozen exits led to human habitation. The ship's crew was obviously busy, or out of sight; the microbial inspection team had dashed off as soon as its task was done, like as not to another job. A lone figure was leaning casually against a wall at the mouth of an exit ramp in the universal languid pose of idleness watching work. Ethan approached it for directions.

The crisp grey-and-white uniform was unfamiliar to Ethan, but obviously military even without the clue of the sidearm on the hip. Only a legal stunner, but it looked well-cared-for and not at all new. The slim young soldier looked up at Ethan's step, inventoried him, he felt, with one glance, and smiled politely.

"Pardon me, sir," Ethan began, and halted uncertainly. Hips too wide for the wiry figure, eyes too large and far apart above a small chiseled nose, jaw thin-boned and small, beardless skin fine as an infant's—it might have been a particularly elegant boy, but...

Her laughter pealed like a bell, entirely too loud for the reddening Ethan. "You must be the Athosian," she chuckled.

Ethan began to back away. Well, she didn't look like the middle-aged scientists portrayed in the Betan Journal. It was a perfectly natural mistake, surely. He had resolved earlier to avoid speaking to women as much as humanly possible, and here he was already— "How do I get out of here?" he mumbled, darting cornered glances around the docking bay.

She raised her eyebrows. "Didn't they give you a map?"

Ethan shook his head nervously.

"Why, that's practically criminal, turning a stranger loose in Kline Station without a map. You could go out looking for the commode and starve to death before you found your way back. Ah ha, the very man I'm looking for. Hit Dom!" she hailed a courier crewman just now crossing the docking bay with a duffle slung over his shoulder. "Over here!"

The crewman changed course, his annoyance melting into the look of a man eager to please, if slightly puzzled. He stood straighter than Ethan had ever seen him, sucking in his gut. "Do I know you, ma'am—I hope?"

"Well, you ought to—you sat next to me in disaster drill class for two years. I admit it's been a while." She ran a hand through her dark cropped curls. "Picture longer hair. C'mon, the re-gen didn't change my face that much! I'm Elli."

His mouth made an "o" of astonishment. "By the gods! Elli Quinn? What have you done to yourself?"

She touched one molded cheekbone. "Complete facial regeneration. Do you like it?"

"It's fantastic!"

"Betan work, you know—the best."

"Yeah, but—" Dom's face puckered. "Why? It's not like you were so hard to look at, before you ran off to join the mercenaries." He gave her a grin that was like a sly poke in the ribs, although his hands were clasped behind his back like a boy's at a bakery window. "Or did you strike it rich?"

She touched her face again, less cheerfully. "No, I haven't taken up hijacking. It was sort of a necessity— caught a plasma beam to the head in a boarding battle out Tau Verde way, a few years back. I looked a little funny with no face at all, so Admiral Naismith, who does not do things by halves, bought me a new one."

"Oh," said Dom, quelled.

Ethan, who found his enthusiasm over the woman's facial aesthetics a trifle baffling, had no trouble sympathizing with this; any plasma burn was horrendous—this one must have come close to killing her. He eyed the face with a new medical interest.

"Didn't you start out with Admiral Oser's group?" asked Dom. "That's still his uniform, isn't it?"

"Ah. Allow me to introduce myself. Commander Elli Quinn, Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, at your service." She bowed with a flourish. "The Dendarii sort of annexed Oser, and his uniforms, and me— and it's been a step up in the world, let me tell you. But I, sir, have home leave for the first time in ten years, and intend to enjoy it. Popping up beside old classmates and giving them heart failure—flashing my credit rating in front of all the people who predicted I'd come to a bad end—speaking of coming to a bad end, you seem to have turned your passenger here loose without a map."

Dom eyed the mercenary officer suspiciously. "That wasn't intended as a pun, was it? I've been on this run four years, and I am so damned tired of coming back to a lot of half-witted bend-over jokes—"

The mercenary woman's laughter burst against the overhead girders, her head thrown back. "The secret of your abandonment revealed, Athosian," she said to Ethan. "Should I take him in hand, then, being by virtue of my sex innocent of the suspicion of, er, unnatural lusts?"

"For all of me, you can," allowed Dom, shrugging. '7 have a wife to get home to." He walked pointedly around Ethan.

"Good-oh. I'll look you up later, all right?" said the woman.

The crewman nodded to her, rather regretfully, and trod off up the exit ramp. Ethan, left alone with the woman, suppressed an urge to run after him begging protection. Recalling vaguely that economic servitude was one of the marks of the damned, he had a sudden horrible suspicion that she might be after his money—and he was carrying Athos's entire purse for the year. He became intensely conscious of her sidearm.

Amusement livened her strange face. "Don't look so worried. I'm not going to eat you," she snickered suddenly, "—conversion therapy not being my line."

"Glck," blurted Ethan, and cleared his throat. "I am a faithful man," he quavered. "To, to Janos. Would you like to see a picture of Janos?"

"I'll take your word for it," she replied easily. The amusement softened to something like sympathy. "I really have you spooked, don't I? What, am I by chance the first woman you've met?"

Ethan nodded. Twelve exits, and he had to pick this one. . . .

She sighed. "I believe you." She paused thoughtfully. "You could use a faithful native guide, though. Kline Station has a reputation for travelers' aid to uphold—it's good for business. And I'm a friendly cannibal."

Ethan shook his head with a paralyzed smile.

She shrugged. "Well, maybe when you get over your culture shock I'll run across you again. Are you going to have a long layover?" She pulled an object from her pocket, a tiny holovid projector. "You get one of these automatically when you get off a proper passenger ship—I don't need mine." A colorful schematic sprang into the air. "We're here. You want to be here, in the branch called Transients' Lounge— nice facilities, you can get a room—actually, you can get most anything, but I fancy you'd prefer the staid end of things. This section. Up this ramp and take the second cross-corridor. Know how to operate this thing? Good luck—" She pressed the map module into his hand, flashed a last smile, and vanished into another exit.

He gathered his meager belongings and found his way to the transients' area eventually, after only a few wrong turns. He passed many more women en route, infesting the corridors, the bubble-car tubes, the slidewalks and lift tubes and arcades, but thankfully none accosted him. They seemed to be everywhere. One had a helpless infant in her arms. He stifled a heroic impulse to snatch the child out of danger. He could hardly complete his mission with a baby in tow and besides, he couldn't possibly rescue them all. It also occurred to him, belatedly, as he dodged a squad of giggling children racing across his path to swoop like sparrows up a lift tube, that there was a 50% chance the infant was female anyway. It assuaged his conscience a little.

Ethan chose a room on the basis of price, after an alarming teleconference between the transient hostel's concierge, the Kline Station public computer system, a Transients' Ombudsman, and no less than four live human officials on ascending rungs of the station's governing hierarchy about the exchange rate to be assigned to Ethan's Athosian pounds. They were actually quite kind in computing the most favorable translation of his funds, via two currencies of which Ethan had never heard, into the maximum possible number of Betan dollars. Betan dollars were one of the harder and more universally acceptable currencies available. Still he ended with what seemed far fewer dollars than he had had pounds before, and he passed hastily over the preferred Imperial Suite in favor of an Economy Cabin.

Economy proved more cabinet than cabin. When he was asleep, Ethan assured himself, he wouldn't mind. Now, however, he was wide awake. He touched the pressure pad to inflate the bed and lay on it anyway, mentally reviewing his instructions and trying to ignore an odd myopic illusion that the walls were pressing inward.

When the Population Council had finally sat down to calculate it, returning the shipment to Jackson's Whole with Ethan to demand their money back cost more than the dubious refund, so Jackson's Whole was scrubbed. Ethan was at last, after much debate, given broad discretionary powers to choose another supplier on the basis of the freshest information available at Kline Station.

There were subsidiary instructions. Keep it under budget. Get the best. Go as far afield as needed.

Don't waste money on unnecessary travel. Avoid personal contact with galactics; tell them nothing of Athos. Cultivate galactics to recruit immigrants; tell them all about the wonders of Athos. Don't make waves. Don't let them push you around. Keep an eye peeled for additional business opportunities. Personal use of Council funds will be considered peculation, and prosecuted as such.

Fortunately, the Chairman had spoken to Ethan privately after the committee briefing.

"Those your notes?" he nodded to the clutch of papers and discs Ethan was juggling. "Give them to me."

And he dropped them into his oubliette.

"Get the stuff and get back," he told Ethan. "All else is gas."

Ethan's heart lifted at the memory. He smiled slowly, sat up, tossed his map module in the air and caught it in a smooth swipe, pocketed it, and went for a walk.

In Transients' Lounge Ethan found the bright face of the tapestry at last by the simple expedient of taking a bubble car through the tubes to the most luxurious passenger dock, turning around, and walking back the other way. Framed in crystal and chrome were sweeping panoramas of the galactic night, of other branches of the Station shot with candy-colored lights, of the glittering wheels of the earliest sections turning forever for the sake of their obsolete centrifugal gravities. Not abandoned—nothing was ever wholly abandoned in this society—but some put to less urgent uses, others half-dismantled for salvage that Kline Station might grow, like a snake eating its tail.

Within the soaring transparent walls of Transients' Lounge rioted a green fecundity of vines, trees in tubs, air ferns, orchids, muted tinkling chimes, bizarre fountains running backward, upside down, spiraling around the dizzy catwalks, lively intricate trickery with the artificial gravity. Ethan paused to stare in fascination for fifteen minutes at one fountain, sheeting water suspended in air, running endlessly in the form of a moebius strip. A breath away, across the transparent barrier, a cold that could turn all to stone in an instant lurked in deathly silence. The artistic contrast was overwhelming, and Ethan was not the only downsider transient who stood transfixed in open wonder.

Bordering the parks section were cafes and restaurants where, Ethan calculated, if he only ate once a week he might dine, and hostelries where patrons who could afford the restaurants four times a day dwelt. And theaters, and feelie-dream booths, and an arcade which, according to its directory, offered travelers the solace of some eighty-six officially established religions. Athos's, of course, was not among them. Ethan passed what was obviously the funeral procession of some philosophic person who spurned cryogenic storage in favor of microwave cremation—Ethan, eyes still full of the endless dark beyond the trees, thought he could understand a preference for fire over ice—and some mysterious ceremony whose principals, a woman wrapped in red silk and a man in spangled blue, were pelted with rice by giggling friends who then tied dozens of strings around the pair's wrists.

Coming to the core of the section, Ethan got down to business. Here were the consuls, embassies, and offices of commercial agents from a score of planets who shipped through the nexus of Kline Station's local space. Here, presumably, he would get a lead on a biological supplier who could fulfill Athos's needs. Then buy a ticket for the chosen planet, then—but Kline Station itself was sensory overload enough for one day.

Dutifully, Ethan at least peeked into the Betan Embassy. Unfortunately, its commercial directory computer interface was manned by what was obviously a female expediter. Ethan withdrew hastily without speaking to her. Perhaps he'd try later, during another shift. He pointedly ignored the collection of consuls representing the great syndicated houses of Jackson's Whole. Ethan did resolve to send House Bharaputra a stiff note of complaint, though, later.

Passing back through from this direction, Ethan's chosen hostel did indeed look staid. He estimated he'd walked a couple of kilometers through various levels from the luxury docks, but a curiosity that grew rather than faded with each new sight and discovery drew him out of Transients' Lounge entirely, into the Stationers' own sections. Here the decor diminished from staid to utilitarian.

The odors from a small cafeteria, tucked between a customized plastics fabricator and a pressure suit repair facility, reminded Ethan suddenly that he hadn't eaten since leaving shipboard. But there were a great many women within. He reversed the impulse and withdrew, feeling very hungry. A random walk led him down two more little tubes into a narrow, rather grubby commercial arcade. He was not far from the docking area by which he'd entered Kline Station. His wanderings were arrested by the smell of overused frying grease drifting from one doorway. He peered into the dimly-lit interior.

A number of men in a kaleidoscope of Stationer work uniforms were lounging at tables and along a counter in attitudes of repose. It was evidently some sort of break room. There was no women present at all. Ethan's oppressed spirits lifted. Perhaps he could relax here, even get something to eat. He might even strike up a conversation. Indeed, remembering his instructions from the Athosian Department of Immigration, he had a duty to do so. Why not start now?

Ignoring a queasy subliminal feeling of unease— this was no time to let his shyness rule him—he entered, blinking. More than a break room. Judging from the alcoholic smell of the beverages, these men must be off-duty altogether. It was some sort of recreational facility, then, though it resembled an Athosian club not at all. Ethan wondered wistfully if one could get artichoke beer here. Being Stationer, it would more likely be based on algae or something. He suppressed a homesick twinge, moistened his lips, and walked boldly up to a group of half-a-dozen men in color-coded coveralls clustered around the counter. Stationers must be used to seeing Transients far more bizarrely dressed than his plain casual Athosian shirt, jacket, trousers, and shoes, but for a moment he wished for the doctor's whites he wore at the Rep Center, all clean and crisp from the laundry, that always lent him their reassuring sense of official identity.

"How do you do," Ethan began politely. "I represent the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization of the Planet Athos. If I may, I'd like to tell you about the pioneering opportunities for settlement still available there—"

The sudden dead silence of his audience was interrupted by a large worker in green coveralls. "Athos? The Planet of the Fags? You on the level?"

"Can't be," said another, in blue. "Those guys never stick their noses off their home dirtball."

A third man, all in yellow, said something extremely coarse.

Ethan took a breath and began again, valiantly. "I assure you, I am indeed on the level. My name is Ethan Urquhart; I am myself a doctor of reproductive medicine. A crisis has arisen recently in our birth rate—"

Green-coveralls gave a bark of laughter. "I'll bet! Let me tell you what you're doing wrong, buddy—"

The coarse one, from whom alcoholic esters were wafting in high concentration, said something de-pressingly one-track. Green-coveralls chortled and patted Ethan familiarly on the stomach. "You're in the wrong store, Athosian. Beta Colony's the place to go for a change-of-sex operation. After that, you can get knocked up in no time."

One-track repeated himself. Ethan turned to him, his outrage and confusion taking refuge in stiff formality. "Sir, you seem to have some sadly narrow preconceptions about my planet. Personal relationships are a matter of individual preference, and entirely private. In fact there are many communes, strict interpreters of the Founding Fathers, who take vows of chastity. They are highly respected—"

"Yeech!" cried Green-coveralls raucously. "That's even worse!" A roar of laughter went up from his co-workers.

Ethan felt his face flush. "Excuse me. I am a stranger here. This is the only place I've seen on Kline Station that is free of women, and I thought some reasonable discourse might be possible. It's a very serious—"

One-track made a loud remark in the same vein.

Ethan wheeled around and slugged him.

Then froze, horror-stricken at his own dreadful breach of control. This wasn't the behavior of an ambassador—he must apologize at once—

"Free of women?" One-track snarled, scrambling back to his feet, his eyes red and drunken and feral. "Is that why you came in here—bloody procuring? I'll show you—"

Ethan found himself secured abruptly from behind by two of One-track's burlier friends. He trembled, suppressing a terrified impulse to struggle and break free. If he stayed cool maybe he could still—

"Hey, fellows, take it easy," Green-coveralls began anxiously. "He's obviously just a transient—"

The first blow doubled Ethan over, his breath whistling between clenching teeth. The two pinioning him straightened him up again. "—what we do to your type," wham! "around here!"

Ethan found he had no breath left with which to apologize. He hoped desperately One-track wasn't going to make a very long speech. But One-track continued, punctuating Ethan regularly.

"—bloody—damned—nosing around our—"

A light, sardonic alto voice interrupted. "Aren't you a little worried by the odds? What if he gets loose, and gangs up on the six of you?"

Ethan twisted his head around; it was the mercenary woman, Commander Quinn. She bounced lightly on her feet, head cocked alertly.

Green-coveralls swore reverently under his breath; One-track just swore. "Come on, Zed," said Green-coveralls, laying a hand on his comrade's arm, although never taking his eyes from the woman's face, "That's enough, I'm thinking."

One-track shook himself free. "And what's this dirt-sucker to you, Sweetie?" he snapped.

One corner of the woman's carved mouth twisted up; Blue-coverall's lips parted in entrancement. "Suppose I say I'm his military advisor?" she said.

"Fag-loving women," One-track swore, "are worse than the fags themselves—" and continued in crude-ness.

"Zed," muttered Blue-coveralls, "can it. She's not a tech, she's a troop. Combat vet—look at her insignia—" There was a stir in the back of the room, as several neutral observers made prudent exits.

"All drunks are a pain," drawled the woman to the air, "but aggressive drunks are just plain disgusting."

One-track shoved toward her, mouthing confused obscenities. She waited in stillness until he crossed some invisible boundary. There was a sudden buzz and a flash of blue light. Ethan realized as the weapon spun in her hand and melted soundlessly back into its holster that the pause had been for stunner nimbus; all others in the group were out of range and untouched.

"Take a nap," she sighed. She glanced up at the two men still holding Ethan. "That your friend?" she nodded to the prone One-track, unconscious on the floor. "You should be more choosy. Friends like that can get you killed."

Ethan was hastily dropped. His knees buckled as he folded over his aching belly. The mercenary woman pulled him back to his feet. "C'mon, pilgrim. Let me take you back where you belong."

"I should have said, 'Why, are you missing yours?'," Ethan decided. "That's what I should have said to him. Or maybe—"

Commander Quinn's lips curved. Ethan wondered irritably why everyone around here seemed to find Athosians so amusing, except for the ones who acted like he was offering them a dose of leprosy. A sudden new fear put him so off-balance he very nearly clutched the mercenary's arm. "Oh, God the Father. Are those constables?"

A pair of men were nearing them in the corridor. Their uniforms were pine green slashed with sky blue, and an intimidating array of equipment hung from their utility belts. Ethan felt a sudden stab of guilt. "Maybe I should turn myself in—get it over with. I did assault that man—"

Commander Quinn's mouth quivered with amusement. "Not unless you're incubating some rare new plant virus under your fingernails. Those guys are Biocontrol—the ecology cops. Underfoot all over Kline Station," she paused to exchange polite nods with the men, who passed on, and added under her breath, "bunch of compulsive hand-washers." She continued after a meditative moment, "Don't cross them, though. They have unlimited powers of search and seizure—you could find yourself being forcibly deloused, with no appeal."

Ethan thought about that. "I suppose station ecology is much less resilient than planetary."

"Balanced on a wire, between fire and ice," she agreed. "Some places have religion. Here we have safety drills. By the way, if you ever see a patch of frost forming anywhere but a docking bay, report it at once."

They re-entered Transients' Lounge. Her eyes were too penetrating, edgy with seriousness, for her quirking mouth, and they made Ethan hideously uneasy. "Hope that little incident doesn't put you off Stationers," she said. "What say I take you to dinner, to make up for my fellow citizens' bad manners?"

Was this some sort of proposition, a ploy to get him alone and helpless? He edged farther from her, as she paced softly beside him like a predatory cat.

"I—I'm not ungrateful," he stammered, his voice rising in pitch, "but, uh, I have a stomach ache," quite true, "thank you anyway," there was a lift tube to the next level, the one his hostel was on, "good-bye!"

He bolted for the tube, leaped in. Reaching upward did nothing to speed his ascent. His last shreds of dignity kept him from flapping his arms. He offered her a strained smile through the crystal sides of the tube as her level fell away in dreamy slowness, distorted, foreshortened, blinked out.

He nipped out of the tube at his exit and darted behind a sort of free-form sculpture with plants nearby in the mallway. He peered through the leaves. She did not chase him. He unwound eventually, slumping on a bench for a long, numb time. Safe at last.

He heaved a sigh and got to his feet, and dragged off up the mall. His little cubicle seemed newly attractive. Something very bland to eat from the room service console, a shower, and bed. No more exploratory adventures. Tomorrow he would get right to business. Gather his data, choose the supplier, and ship out on the first available transport...

A man dressed in some planetary fashion of dull neutrality, plain grey tunic and trousers, approached Ethan on the esplanade, smiling. "Dr. Urquhart?" He grasped Ethan's arm.

Ethan smiled back in uncertain courtesy. Then stiffened, his mouth opening to cry indignant protest as the hypospray prickled his arm. A heartbeat, and his mouth slackened, the cry unspent. The man guided him gently toward a bubble car in the tubeway.

Ethan's feet felt vague, like balloons. He hoped the man wouldn't let go, lest he bob helplessly up to the ceiling and hang upside down with things falling out of his pockets on the passersby. The mirrored canopy of the bubble car closed over his unfocused gaze like a nictitating membrane.