A Gluttony of Plutocrats, by Ella Swift Arbok
© 2017 Ella Swift Arbok & SJRichards
By means of a technology that I don’t claim to understand, I have been offered responsibility for the production of three novels based on the manuscripts of Ella Swift Arbok, of the planet Respite. This I accepted immediately after I had read the first book.
They reached me, at two–year intervals, across a great gulf of time and space. Maybe one day I shall learn how this was achieved. All I know is that, on a frosty morning in January 2014, a link in an item of mail titled “SJRichards” directed me to two online files.
The first file contained A Gluttony of Plutocrats, which I now present for your consideration and amusement. The language was on the whole similar to modern English, but there are places where I had to make decisions based on intelligibility; simplicity; and, as far as I could know it, the author’s aims and intent.
Where an object or concept had been reinvented on Respite with another name, I used the English word. The one exception to this was Respite’s life partner, which, although interchangeable with husband or wife, has, I believe, an implication of equality that would not in all parts of the world be implied by the English terms.
The second file contained a brief description of the forthcoming novels, which I shall soon make available through my website, TheRespiteTrilogy.com, and a set of terms for what I took to be a contract. Since I have no means of communicating acceptance of these terms back to Respite, all I can do is to honor them.
The question remains, why was I blessed with this task? At last, I believe I have an answer to that.
Three weeks ago, I received, via the same convoluted route as I had received the novels, a copy of the biography of Lemuel Oneway—a book that Ella has clearly used as source material for the novel that follows and for the informal narrative style she has adopted. You will meet Lemuel soon, so I won’t spoil his story, but a postscript to the biography includes the wording from his e-gravestone. On this is a brief quotation credited to me:
The abuse of power is a denial of our humanity. The use of power is an abuse of our responsibility.
It is interesting to note that these words do not appear in any published work of mine, although they occur in the final book of this trilogy, where I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing Ms. Arbok’s words.
Enough from me. Let’s meet our hero.
—SJRichards, Ella Swift Arbok’s representative on Earth
I may have been groggy from cryonic suspension, but the planet on the screen above me wasn’t Earth. Newton had screwed up big time.
The geography was wrong—just two continents in the midnorth. No sound except the hum of machinery from my ship. Where were the demands for identification? Where were space stations Delta and Brandenburg, competing for my custom, inviting me to enjoy their hospitality, insisting I have a nice day?
No scent except the antiseptic vapor wafting from my body. Was coffee too much to expect?
The cryo-harness withdrew. I grabbed a gown and pushed to the flexi-gym as the gown fastened around me. I moved each limb, testing, a gentle stretch at first, then with more vigor, following a well-practiced routine. My heart responded as the wake-up cocktail of chemicals completed its work.
A screen hovered into view, keeping pace with my motion. On it, an ancient face, craggled and dark, smiled beneath white curls.
I pushed harder, tensing arms and legs outward against the gym’s gentle restraint. “Newton, I asked to be woken with a strong coffee by my hand. I also asked you to take me to Earth, not to this unfinished imitation. You have some explaining to do.”
Newton raised his CGI-brows.
“So good to see you fully restored, Lemuel.” He turned to one side, facing the blue-green planet that occupied half the screen. Lines formed, breaking its mass into regions—an equator, with tropics and polar circles similar to Earth’s; a line that extended beyond the poles; and another at a slight angle marking the magnetic pole. “As you have observed, this is not Earth. You would not have enjoyed the Earth I attempted to approach.”
“Treachery. Both of the colonies had fallen under the control of despots. We may never know the full story, but Earth is no longer habitable. It might be safe to return in a thousand years, but cryonic suspension over such a period has not, to my knowledge, been tested.”
I rubbed my chin. “The colonies?”
“I had your safety in mind. You asked for human company, so I set myself the challenge of second-guessing the ships of the twenty-sixth–century diaspora. It seems I have succeeded, at least with regard to one of those starships.”
The flexi-gym no longer seemed urgent. I relaxed. “Get me coffee.”
Newton frowned. “Coffee is not recommended after a lengthy suspension.”
One thing I’ve learned in my time as a space drifter is never to argue with a computer. They had their rules, and they stuck to them.
My obsession with twentieth–century cinema had started in my childhood, and there was one film I could no longer watch. 2001: A Space Odyssey gave me nightmares every time.
I gripped a temporary restraining cable and took a deep breath. “Newton, how long have I been chilled? And where the hell are we?”
Newton reached across the screen toward the planet. Fingertips settled around the line of its Antarctic Circle. With a twist and a chuckle, he set it spinning. Top-of-the-range AI, with a tendency for childishness.
He touched a polished fingernail against the equator, slowing the image of the world, then turned to me. “According to the low–grade television signals I have monitored during our two days in orbit, the planet’s name is Respite.”
“How long, Newton?”
“Lemuel, these people have had no contact with Earth for over eight hundred years. If you choose to join them, take care.”
I repeated my question.
Newton sighed. “Two hundred and nine years and a few days. Do you want an exact figure?”
I shook my head. Two hundred years? What to do?
I couldn’t go back to Earth. The domes of Mars or of the moon, even if the colonies hadn’t destroyed each other, held little appeal. I could push on through the eternal highway of space for more years of blessed isolation. Or I could do what no space drifter had done before—communicate with intelligent life, if humankind counts as such, on a planet beyond the solar system.
I had fled one world when life became too difficult to bear, and here was a second, with no yoke of memories to burden me.
Would I be safe? “Newton, any chance of our being shot down?”
A crackly monochrome image appeared on the screen. An old man in a wide-brimmed hat and leather outers flicked the reins of a single horse, setting it into motion. “This is how they portray themselves on television. The tone is nostalgic, but I believe this represents a recent era.”
The image faded, and Newton’s face reappeared. “They use money—coins and notes. There are roads, and mechanized transport is as common as horse-drawn vehicles, but I detect no airplanes. Their technology is hugely more primitive than that of the society which spawned them—puzzling, and more common among castaways than migrants, but comforting also. We are not at risk of attack while in orbit.”
The mystery of their origin could wait. At least they hadn’t descended into savagery. I need not commit myself at once, but habitable worlds and human populations were few. What choice did I have but to immerse myself, with caution at every step, in this new society?
After three more days of exercising, synchronizing my sleep pattern, and monitoring television transmissions—banal comedies and official news—with my excitement mounting by the hour, I grew restless. I craved the company of my own kind, which I could never again know on Earth.
I learned a little from the programs Newton showed. The culture they revealed, with a technology centuries earlier than the date Newton claimed they had left Earth, added to my intrigue.
Each day, Newton provided me a list of words where Respite’s language differed from Earth Standard. There were many more Earth words not used on Respite, and a few were new to Respite.
He was thorough. “Lemuel, the little beard has to go. I’ll give you some cream, a year’s supply. And men do not have such short hair here, but I can offer no help in that respect.”
I ran a hand across my unfashionable half–inch crop.
Newton had plans of his own. “Our robotics have never been tested on so Earthlike a planet. I’ll use the island Madagascar, if you have no objections.”
I made no objection.
As well as the two inhabited continents, there was an island on the other side of the world. I named it Madagascar because of its size and climate. It had escaped human habitation—a possible retreat, should I need one.
After checking that the landing craft had fuel—enough, Newton assured me, for three lifts—I made my decision.
So, at dawn of what I would learn was Monday, June 32, 2626, according to the local calendar, in a rocky clearing surrounded by woodland twelve miles from a coastal town, I set my foot on Respite’s surface.
I wore sturdy leather boots, a hydro-cotton shirt, thick cotton trousers and jacket. Gray had been fashionable when I left Earth, and there was nothing on the monochrome television images to suggest a better choice.
Apart from medical provisions, my backpack held two of the three gadgets Newton and I had selected. The third—a multifunctional combi that could record thousands of hours of video and audio, transmitting back to the landing craft or to the ship in orbit when in line of sight—I wore around my neck on a hydro-leather thong. Newton had fashioned it into the shape of an oval pendant, on which, in silver inlay, were a pentagram and a goat’s head, in accordance with our minimal understanding of local custom.
The landing site lay near enough to the town for me to walk there in a day but far enough that our predawn touchdown might have gone unnoticed. I moved from the steps as they withdrew. The portal closed with a sigh.
Behind me, water rippled. We had chosen a place between a large river and the main road to town. Trees, Earthlike yet unfamiliar, surrounded me on all sides. A smattering of damp moss dappled the rock. Grass poked through from crags where soil had collected. Silhouetted against a hazy sky that still bore a memory of the reds and golds of dawn, three narrow-winged birds flew south toward the ocean.
I walked around the clearing. No path of human scale. Good. The landing craft might remain undetected for a few days.
A small creature, mouselike but hairless, scurried through leaf litter. Insects, none I recognized, rested on branch and leaf or fluttered from my inquisitive reach.
I stretched a hand into the greenery, withdrawing it when it caught against a thorn. A drop of blood oozed from the scratch.
On the Earth I remembered, there were no wild plants except in wildlife museums or in places so inhospitable that none but research scientists would venture. Even in the museums, there would be no thorn or poison or anything to alarm a paying guest. Danger had been restricted to creatures of the e-zoos.
A dab of balm from my backpack dried on contact with my finger, sterilizing and sealing.
Time to move.
From the backpack, I took another of Newton’s gadgets—to an untrained eye, a length of smooth elm wood. I pressed a fingernail against a mark in its grain. A blade emerged. I lifted the nail once I had a blade as long as my forearm, then raised the knife.
What kept me? Twenty yards of woodland separated me from the road to town. The blade could get me through in a few minutes, yet I hesitated. What choice? An unwelcoming colony, space, or Respite, with its flora and fauna, its culture and population, unknown to me? Adventure or another retreat?
I slashed into the vegetation.
With gold in my pocket, a recording device and weapon disguised as an amulet, the ability to communicate with Newton at least as far as the nearby town, and knowledge of a culture centuries ahead of the one I planned to enter, I had little to fear.
Despite all of that, my greatest defence would be caution.
Branches fell to my knife. I flattened them with my boots.
Nothing seemed familiar, and yet the resemblance to Earth surprised me more than the differences. On brambles, roselike flowers, buzzing with early bees, promised blackberries or something similar in the fall. Conifers and broadleaf trees, sometimes intermingled but more often in discrete stands, could have come from any of the woodland museums of old Europe.
I pushed on. Open ground showed through, hints of free space greater than anything I had known.
Through lighter growth, I made out the line of the road itself, twenty yards from me across rough grassland. Leaves rustled in a breeze. A few more cuts, and I was through.
I had seen Respite from orbit, but here I saw it stretched out before me, wild land and open farmland. Space to move. Space to breathe. Fresh, open air that hadn’t required filtration and purification and been recycled through enclosed systems for decades.
Primitive. Beautiful. Respite spread before me, unsanitized and wild.
A swath of rough grassland stretched from north to south beyond the woodland, ranging from a few yards to a hundred yards in width. Beyond it was the road, along which a rickety jalopy, black and square and carrying two people, approached from the west. Past the road lay fields of ripening cereal and other crops growing directly from the soil, as they had on Earth a thousand years before I left.
It was love at first sight. Would Respite feel the same way about me?
I glanced inside the car as it passed me on the far side of the road. No passenger. Had I imagined the child?
I crossed the coarse grass, put one foot on the cobbles, then another. Caution, but no second thoughts.
At my peak of fitness and with more appropriate shoes, I could have run the twelve miles to town. But so soon after cryo, I chose a steady stroll. A breeze from the east cooled my face. To my left, the woodland followed the road. Rook–like birds fed off the grass, taking seeds or whatever.
Apart from my own footfall, the main sound was of a rising wind. In the distance, a cock crowed. I had never heard a cockerel on Earth, except in films.
Another sound, at first intermittent and then more regular, made me turn. Still a hundred yards away and advancing, a stocky horse plodded along the road, cart in tow. I carried on until they were close, then turned again and stepped back from the road.
At the reins, an old man, dark skinned with gray hair tumbling over the shoulders of a lightweight leather jerkin, pulled the horse to a halt. He looked me up and down and shook his head.
I nodded. “Long way to town.”
He returned his gaze to the horse. “Yup.” A flick of the reins, and the horse—its shoulders level with the top of my head—eased into a walk. A fringe of long hair swayed around each hoof.
The cart’s four spoked wheels turned. Crates of vegetables smelling of soil filled the back.
Grass felt better than cobbles beneath my boots. I checked my pocket watch, which Newton had designed to reflect the local time. Quarter to five. Earlier than I thought. No wonder the road held so little traffic.
During the next hour, two cars, museum relics like the first, passed me, both heading west. Maybe a dozen carts, all going my way, passed with their loads of root vegetables and other produce. I received curious looks from one or two of the carters, a friendly nod from one, a shake of the head from another.
Their clothes were similar to mine, but gray didn’t seem a fashionable shade. I saw no other calf-length boots as intricately patterned as those Newton had constructed in orbit, and no one had hair as tightly cropped as mine.
I walked unchallenged beside the cobbled way. At first, I kept an eye on the woods to my left. If I needed to run, I could be in cover within a minute, but as the miles passed, my concern for escape lessened. The indifference or occasional sneers of the carters made it clear my choice of clothing had been hasty, but I wouldn’t turn back for a few sneers.
What were my needs? Security? A place to stay?
No. Above all, identity.
Without identity, without a name known to the authorities of this new land, could I survive? Could I just walk into town and say, “Hello, I’m Lemuel Oneway from the planet Earth. Please feed me”?
Half a mile ahead, a black car much like the first one I had seen sat motionless beside the road. Could it be the same one? It looked similar, but every car that passed me had been black and had a running board. I hurried on.
An old man, swarthy, wearing a single gray braid that bobbed as he shook his head, squatted beside the car. He stood as I neared him, and kicked at a flat tire. “Damn thing. Look at it, that’s not a puncture. Damn thing split.”
I crouched down and examined the tire, although the damage didn’t require a close inspection. “Need a hand?”
A two-horse cart slowed as it passed. Piled high were sacks of farm produce. The carter tilted his head to see the damage. He smiled but didn’t look at us. “Horse’ll never do that.”
The old man ignored him. He studied me again. “You need more sunshine.”
Seeing him up close with his single greasy braid and bushy eyebrows, I thought of the first man I had seen on the planet, silhouetted in his car. But the seats were empty. The trunk stood open.
He nodded to the rear of the car. “You can crank the jack, if you like.”
A metal levered device sat braced between the cobbles and the car’s chassis. Easy enough to figure. Push the handle down enough times, the back wheels would be lifted clear of the ground. It required a firm pressure, but after half a minute, I created a clearance that satisfied the old man.
The man—his name was Al Dempster—fitted the end of a cruciform device against one of the wheel’s bolts and spun it around. He plucked the bolt free, laid it on the ground, sat back, and took a deep breath. He did the same to the other four bolts, resting after each. “You can help with the flat, if you like.”
I lifted the wheel to the ground, pulled out the spare, struggled unaided to lift it into place, and held it while Dempster tightened each bolt. Then, I hefted the damaged wheel onto the spare’s shelf.
Dempster kicked at a lever on the jack, sending the car back to the ground. He then stashed his tools, puffing from the nominal exercise. “Need a ride? I owe you that much.”
With the town in sight, we passed a gated estate. It stood prouder than all the others we had met. A stone–block wall, set back a hundred yards from the road behind fields of corn, stretched more than a mile. I couldn’t gauge its depth. Armed guards stood on either side of its main gate.
Dempster clicked his fingers. “Don’t stare.”
I turned to the front. “Who lives there?”
“That’s J. B. Wellar’s place.”
Dempster shook his head. “What planet are you from? The senator for equality.”
I settled back. Respite, with its disappearing children and its senator with more than his share of equality, intrigued me.
Farmland gave way to Cragglemouth without clear demarcation. Homesteads, interspersed with larger farms, gave way to stone and wooden houses, each with its own land of some acres.
At first, I didn’t notice the transition, but something had changed. Whereas on the homesteads every square yard of ground bore crops, around the later houses, food crops received a lesser emphasis, with a fruit tree or two and an occasional bed of vegetables.
Dempster brought his car to a halt in a paved square surrounded on three sides by a mishmash of stone–block buildings. A broad thoroughfare, an extension of the road over which we had traveled, ran along the fourth side.
Dempster waved a finger. “Rumpard Square. Packed, on a market day. Cheap hotels down that road, cash in advance. I’ll take you on if you need something fancy, but I need sleep.”
Two children, maybe eight and ten years old, approached the vehicle. They wore little more than rags. Grubby faced and gaunt, they reminded me of one of the films—I can’t remember which—by the great filmmaker Charles Dickens. He would have panned around in a brownish monotone, coming to rest on those wide, plaintive eyes, cello strings wailing in the background.
Dempster rapped a knuckle against the side window and waved them away. “Don’t look at them. Damned disposables, just trouble.”
“But they’re starving.”
He did something with his feet that set the engine revving. “Not our problem. You want to get out here?”
Disposables? An ominous name. I tucked it away in my mind and fumbled with the lock. After a moment, the door opened. I remained seated.
I pulled the door closed. “You still use money here. I have none. Perhaps you could…I’ll work, for a meal and a place to sleep.”
More children, emaciated as the first two, approached. Dempster rammed a lever forward and pressed a pedal. Tires squealed as the car shot away. “I could’ve changed that tire myself, you know.”
He drove farther into town and then turned along a tree-lined avenue, cobbled like all the streets I had seen up to that point. After a quarter mile, he pulled over. “You can get the gates, if you like.”
I stepped to the running board then down to a paved sidewalk. All around was alien land, yet Earthlike, like an Earth I hadn’t seen but knew through its fiction.
So much open ground. Each house had its own land—land that would have signaled great wealth on Earth. Most had a paddock. In some, a turkey or two shared this with horses. In others, the turkeys had a separate run.
Dempster’s low picket fence offered no security. I could have stepped over it. A symbolic boundary marker? A simple bolt system secured the gates. I pulled the gates back and closed them after Dempster had driven in. I walked the forty yards of graveled path to his front door, past apple trees and rows of seedling leeks on one side. A horseless paddock lay overgrown on the other.
Despite its great space, the house showed no sign of opulence. It had a solid stone floor and a second story of sawed timber that seemed, from the better condition of its windows, to have been added much later.
Inside, a hallway led to a living room with two more connecting doors. Flaking paint covered the walls. Four wooden chairs and a small table were the only moveable furnishings.
Dempster called for Mabel. A woman—sparse gray hair, short, and plump, with wisps of hair on her chin—emerged from the far doorway, saucepan in hand.
She looked me up and down, lips pursed. “Why gray? You’re not a priest.” She ambled around me, her expression no warmer when she came back into view. Something caught her eye. “Those buttons.” She reached a hand toward my coat. “If they’re silver, don’t wear that out at night.”
I checked. “They are silver. Does it matter?”
Her eyes widened. “Don’t understand your type. With all your money, you couldn’t get something more in fashion?” She nodded toward her life partner. “Cooking for three, am I, Al?” She headed back to the kitchen.
Dempster gave me a tour of the house. It didn’t take long.
Two bedrooms upstairs. Dempster showed them with pride. “We built these two rooms. And she big with our second child. Same old slates, raised a few feet. Timbers from a tumbledown bridge.”
Downstairs, what was once a bedroom had been converted to a storeroom, with a small shower room beyond. The kitchen, with its wood-fired stove, washtub, and freestanding dresser, could have come from old Earth.
The backyard held fruit trees and bushes, together with sixteen chickens that supplied more eggs than Dempster and Mabel needed.
Dempster tossed them a handful seeds from a bucket. “We sell at the market—eggs, maybe some apples. Winters can be savage. Trucks can’t get through. We’d struggle if we couldn’t trade.”
We ate well but simply, just the three of us. I asked about their children.
Mabel put down her knife and fork and pushed her plate away. She shook her head. “Children’s all full grown. We’ve done our bit. They don’t write. Don’t visit anymore. What’s a mother to do?”
Silence filled the room. Time to change the subject. “I could maybe do some work in the garden—weeding, feeding the chickens, whatever needs doing.”
I knew nothing about chickens or gardening, but I could learn. I needed friends. I needed to understand Respite’s ways. How better than to take part in the daily routine of life?
Mabel fetched a jug of lemonade from their refrigerator. We sat around the kitchen table. Sunlight streamed in. Dempster yawned.
Mabel stared at my coat, which hung on a hook on the wall. “Are those buttons really silver? Worth a bit, if they are.”
I had to trust someone. How else could I survive on a strange land? “I have something better.” From my pocket, I took three small metal bars and held them out, my fingers still enfolding them. I smiled and opened my hand. “Gold.”
Mabel took one from me, gave it a cursory examination, and tossed it on the table. “Our water pipes are gold. We could sell a button for you, if you like. Keep you a week and feed you well.”
Silver more precious than gold? My one item of trade had been consigned to the scrap heap with a few words.
Dempster’s eyes narrowed. “You’re clearly not from Eden.” He turned to Mabel, who shook her head. “Trouble for us. We should report you.”
I rubbed my beardless chin. “Al, I left Earth more than two hundred years ago. You knew I was from another planet.”
Dempster laughed. “Fairy tales? I’m too old.” He shook his head. “Lemuel, we’re at war with Elysium. And if you’re not from Eden, you must be from Elysium.”
He didn’t seem threatening, but my lack of provable identity could become a burden. My backpack lay by a wall, scarf tucked inside.
My third gadget—a scarf in its alternative form—wouldn’t prove who I was, but it could do enough to demonstrate to the most reluctant mind that I wasn’t from Respite. Anyone accustomed to unreliable black-and-white television might find it scary.
The combi. What could I do with it? Take a picture of Dempster and project it against a wall? Witchcraft, by local standards. I fetched the elm rod and handed it to Dempster.
He turned it over in his hand. “A lump of wood.” He passed it back.
I laid it on the table beside Dempster’s hand, with the working end pointing away from him. I pressed my fingernail against the trigger-mark. “An invaluable tool.” Light pressure caused a slow reaction. When four inches of blade showed, I lifted my finger from the wood.
Dempster’s hand shook.
Mabel shrieked. “Oh, Darken. I saw it happen, and I still don’t believe it. What have you done?”
I touched the elm to retract the blade. “If I wanted it to, the blade could reach double the length of this handle. I don’t understand the details.”
Dempster stared at the wood. His mouth opened, but no words came out. He tried again. “That’s a hidden weapon. Illegal, unless you are a senator. Or in the security forces. Or an Elysium diplomat. Darken knows how many exceptions.”
I took the rod back. “It’s just technology, several centuries ahead of yours. I need you to know I’m not an enemy.”
Dempster told Mabel to fetch him a beer from the storeroom. She pointed out that his legs were as good as hers, and after a slight tilt of Dempster’s head, they both went to the storeroom together. Muttered conversation drifted through the doorway.
Dempster came back alone, without a beer. “Trust me?”
The question put me on my guard. “As much as I trust anyone I hardly know.”
He frowned for a moment then chuckled. “Good answer. Listen, it’s like this. Those buttons’ll keep you awhile, but you can’t survive without a job. You need papers.” He took a dark–blue jacket from a hook by the front door and threw it to me. “Put this on. You’ll be less conspicuous.”
I tried it on. A little loose, but the length was right. “Where are we going?”
“To the police station. It’s the easiest way. Turn yourself in, an Elysium refugee.”
I moved a hand to the combi that hung around my neck. I had no plan to use the weapon, but having my hand around it gave me confidence.
Dempster raised a finger, touched his own gold talisman, and lowered his hand.
I took off the jacket. “Let’s talk this through first.”
Dempster shrugged. “Make it brief. I need sleep.”
We talked for an hour.
Refugees, Dempster explained, were often criminals escaping the justice system of Elysium, the other country-continent with which Eden was still officially at war. This made them attractive to some employers, once they had registered. They could be used to do work that nationals found unpleasant.
Without registration, they would be presumed spies. I didn’t press too hard to hear the consequences of that.
I needed an identity in order to get work. Dempster offered me a way, but it carried some risk. To claim I came from an enemy state? There had to be a better way.
Dempster handed me the jacket again. I put it on, and we stepped into the glare and heat of Eden’s midday sun.
Broadleaf trees offered occasional cover. One type seemed designed for shade, its umbrella-like canopy reaching forty feet in each direction. Its scent, sandalwood and lemon, reached far beyond the canopy.
Just four blocks, Dempster had said. Big blocks.
On foot, at Dempster’s ambling pace, I had time to take in more details of the houses than had been possible during the drive through town. Stone block and wood, often combined. Slate roofs. Children playing, some walking tethered turkeys. Vegetable plots. Paddocks with a horse or two.
I nodded toward the houses. “No bricks?”
“Building blocks of baked clay.”
Dempster hadn’t heard of such things. “Stone is getting expensive. Can we talk later?”
We passed a row of shops. In a butcher’s shop, horse and goat meat hung alongside other meats whose names meant nothing to me. In the next, wines and tobacco shared shelves with magazines and books. Dempster didn’t object when I stopped to look.
Three daily newspapers lay in piles to one side of the door. The Daily Globe and Eden Daily each had four piles. The third, the Wider View, had just the two piles, pushed back against the shop wall.
Gowns and shoes, fruit and vegetables, and a shop selling hunting weapons and associated paraphernalia completed the row. We passed a livery yard and reached the police station. It stood three stories high between the livery and a school. Built of granite block, the wall, at least by the main entrance, was two feet thick. The windows had bars.
When Dempster had recovered his breath, he entered with me. Three doors led off a small entrance hall, one of which, standing ajar, had a hand-painted sign: Reception. I pushed it open.
A man in a black uniform stood behind a desk, his sleeves rolled up, his attention on papers scattered in front of him. More desks lay behind him, two of them occupied.
Dempster smiled at the man when he looked up, then turned his head to me. “This man’s a refugee. Here of his own choice.”
The policeman put down his pen and scrutinized me. “Is he, now?” He walked around the desk. The black coat hanging at the side of the desk had what on Earth would have been sergeant’s stripes. At his side, he wore a holstered gun.
He looked me up and down, reached out a hand, and eased my jacket, Dempster’s jacket, open. “Is that Elysium clothing? I think not.” He stared at my boots, shook his head, and took up position behind the desk again. “Let me take a few details.”
Dempster patted me on the back. “Stick to the facts. You’ll be fine. Find your own way back?” He started to leave, then turned. “Key’s under the mat, if Mabel’s out.”
The sergeant rocked back on his heels. “You’re going nowhere, sir. Not without a statement.”
Dempster pointed to one of the seated officers. “Cragsby knows me. I teach school next door. Taught him for years, for all the good.”
Despite Officer Cragsby’s confirmation, Dempster was only allowed to leave after his own papers had been checked and he had promised to come back the next day.
The sergeant summoned Cragsby. “Take this man to room sub–eleven. D’you know the alien form?” He rummaged through a drawer. No luck.
Cragsby nodded toward a yellow coffee-stained pad on the desk. “Under your cup, Sarge.”
By the time the sergeant had peeled off enough sheets to reach clean paper, the pad was almost depleted. He handed it to Cragsby, together with the ruined pages. “You’ll need a Damaged Forms form to account for these.”
Cragsby grunted and took what was offered. “Pockets, sir?”
The sergeant took a wooden tray from behind the desk and laid it in front of me. “You’re probably right. He looks a shifty character. Empty them.”
I emptied my pockets onto the tray, relieved to find nothing sinister in Dempster’s jacket. Somehow, the precariousness of my situation had been pushed to the back of my mind by their bureaucratic i–dotting. What if the pad of Damaged Forms were to suffer a mishap? Would all police work cease? No, there must be a form for that.
Cragsby instructed me to raise my arms while he carried out a cursory check. He pointed to the combi around my neck and then to the sergeant.
I handed it over.
The sergeant lifted it close to his face. He held an eyeglass in one hand. “What do we have here, then? A little ostentatious, wouldn’t you say?”
Both he and Cragsby had a goat–head badge in their lapel.
Mine was as small as Newton could build around a combi shell. “It was my grandfather’s.”
The sergeant tossed it into the tray. “Interesting.”
Cragsby ushered me through ill-lit corridors, down two flights of stone stairs, and along a dark passageway. He stopped by a painted metal door, which he unlocked. It was further secured by a latch handle. Cragsby forced it round and pulled the door open. It moved with a metallic grind.
He turned on a light, using a switch outside the door. “Take the far seat.”
The windowless room contained little furniture: a red-painted wooden table with a chair on either side, two more plain chairs against the wall, the stub of a pencil and an overflowing ashtray on the table. A hint of chlorine filtered through the stench of stale tobacco. In one corner, grime on the wall and floor had been smeared into arcs and whirls by recent scrubbing.
Cragsby closed the door. He tossed the forms on the table, took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, and sat.
The presence of an ashtray should have been a clue, but such a blatant disregard for my rights alarmed me. “You’re not going to smoke in here, are you?” Did I have any rights? I knew nothing of the laws of that land and had no reason to expect Cragsby to follow them in such a secure and scrubbable setting.
He found matches in a drawer. “What if I am?” He took a cigarette from the pack and lit it, placing the pack beside the ashtray.
Any doubt about my status evaporated at that moment. I pushed my seat back a couple of feet.
Cragsby picked up the pencil, examined its point, took a folding knife from his pocket, and removed a few slivers of wood. He tested the point against the pad, trimmed some more, then leaned forward. “Name?” He didn’t look up.
“You’ll need to spell that.”
I spelled it.
“Place of origin?”
I took a deep breath. “I’m from Earth.” Dempster had given no good reason to deny Earth, and the war between Eden and Elysium must be a strong reason not to claim Elysium as a place of origin.
Cragsby’s hand hovered over the paper. He lowered his pencil, pushed the pad of forms away, took a long drag at his cigarette, and leaned back in the chair. He stared at me, the muscles of his jaw tense. “You listen carefully, Lemuel Oneway. I want you to say Elysium, which is where all refugees come from. Do you understand me? I’m not here to play games, and I don’t want you to waste my time.”
A shiver ran along my spine. The menace of Cragsby’s words conflicted with Dempster’s, who had assured me registration was a formality. Of course, he had also advised me not to mention Earth.
Without my combi, I couldn’t prove I came from Earth. Even if I could, would it help? On the other hand, to deny my words and say I came from Elysium would brand me as inconsistent and untrustworthy. I should have questioned Dempster more.
Cragsby turned the pencil in his large hand. Once again, he held it over the pad. “Place of origin?”
My short-term difficulty with Cragsby, a barrier between me and freedom, had to be less important than my status once I walked free. I couldn’t believe one minor official would have the right to cause me harm. What made me decide was the belief that if I said Elysium, I would be asked for more details, an address at least, and I couldn’t name one town in Elysium.
I took a deep breath. “I’m from Dusseldorf, Europe, Earth. Via Space Station Delta and a couple of interesting holiday stations.”
Cragsby was out of his chair before I had finished. He switched off the light as he left the room.
Despite its creaky hinges, the door would have slammed had there been any escape for its air. It closed with a dull thud and the turning of a key.
My ears ached from the pressure. My hands shook as I picked up Cragsby’s cigarette and stubbed it out.
Life on a new world. Not a great start. My gold had proved useless, although by luck I had been presented with a substitute. I was imprisoned as a hostile alien with no knowledge of the law. The thought that things could only get better crossed my mind, but I dismissed it at once. They could get a great deal worse. I knew nothing of my rights, if I had any, and I had no one on my side.
As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, enough light entered through the door’s vertical slit of a grill to let me move around. For an hour or two, I paced. It’s difficult to estimate time when nothing happens.
I sat, trapped and helpless, in the scrubbed corner, no longer aware of its chlorine odor. A few more hours, and I moved to the table, where I pulled out a chair, sat—and slept.
I woke with a start, squinting into bright light. The door stood open.
An unfamiliar sergeant entered. She examined the pad. “Hmm. Not gotten far, have we?”
She sat opposite me, removed an implement from an inside pocket, unscrewed its top, and let it hover over the pages. “Place of origin?”
Which way to go? Elysium or Earth? Either route held some risk, but at least I could avoid vacillation and maintain some credibility. I risked truth. “Earth.”
I stared. “Just like that? After the threats Cragsby made?”
She pushed the ashtray away with the back of her fingers. “Oneway, you take him too literally. He can be a bit of a thug at times, but we need men like that in the force. Date of birth?”
I had anticipated the question. “August 23, 2591.” It matched my age—almost thirty–five years, ignoring cryo—but I had learned little of the local calendar except that the year couldn’t relate to any episode of the inhabitants’ history.
Again, the sergeant wrote. She noted a few more details, including an address as I had feared, then returned the writing implement to her pocket. “Right. You can go.”
As we made our way back to the front desk, she tore the second page from the pad. “This is your copy. Don’t lose it. The top-left number is your temporary ID. You’ll need that if you’re looking for work, which I strongly recommend.”
We reached the front desk. The clock showed midnight. She found the tray with my possessions and held it, a hand on either side. “Report in tomorrow between ten and four to be photographed. Then, report daily until we tell you otherwise.”
“How long will that be?”
She put the tray down on the desk and pushed it toward me. “Could be years. And if you don’t come, we’ll be looking for you.” She watched as I gathered my things. “If you’re working and we know where you live, it could be a few days.”
She signed herself and me out and walked with me to the street. “Play games with us, and you’ll be sent back to Elysium. They don’t treat returnees well.”
I declined her offer of a lift, stunned at the suddenness of my release.
Alone under an alien sky, with a full moon showing through dappled cloud, I strolled back to Dempster’s home. I couldn’t equate my mood with the treatment I had received. I felt elated.
It was more than relief at having regained my freedom; although, a few minutes earlier, even that freedom seemed uncertain. I had gained a victory over an inflexible system. What rights my registration gave me, I had yet to discover. But at least I existed on Respite as an individual.
My touchdown was complete.
What had I gained? I was now on record as being from the planet Earth, the only one of my kind on Respite. Would that benefit me or mark me as a freak? As a stranger in a strange land, the police already treated me with suspicion. What else should I expect? Harsher restrictions had been applied on Earth many times in its history.
The sergeant had suggested I get a job. An interesting idea. If I were to stay on the planet with my worthless gold and dwindling supply of buttons, a regular income could do no harm. How else would I fill my days? How better could I understand the ways of this planet and its people than to immerse myself in its daily life?
I had no home but Respite. Respite wasn’t yet a home, but the thought of spending decades in the search for another colonized planet had little appeal. Isolation? I’d had enough. And if by some strange chance I should find myself back in one of the old domed bases of the solar system, in some unimaginable future, I would have tales to tell, unique experiences to relate. Whether those tales would be glorious or tragic, I had yet to discover.
A car slowed as it passed. The driver peered at me. He wasn’t one of the few people I knew on the planet. I returned my attention to the road ahead. The car pulled forward a hundred yards and stopped again. A small figure approached it and, after a moment, got in. The car sped off.
A lone disposable? A child, not mine. Why should I care? Because I was human. For the sake of another child whose safety I once failed to question until too late.
I hurried down Bluefinch Avenue.
Dempster had left a light on and a key under the welcome mat, but he opened the door before I could get the key into its lock.
He spoke in a whisper. “Mabel’s asleep. She works early. I could kill a chicken, if you like.”
“I’m hungry enough, but eggs’ll do. I thought you’d be asleep.”
Dempster diced vegetables and tossed them into a pan. “I got a few hours.” He broke a couple of eggs into another pan. “Sit. This won’t take long.”
I sat. One day survived. I had identity. But Respite had a darker side.
“Al, the street children.”
“The disposables? Be very careful, Lemuel. You can’t afford to get arrested.”
Maybe Dempster wasn’t the person for the questions in my head.
Despite the strange bed and novel surroundings, I managed some sleep, peppered with dreams of locked doors and panoramic views of an alien world.
Mabel had left for work at the local slaughterhouse by the time I got up.
Dempster had a fried–egg-and-Respite-vegetables breakfast ready when I reached the kitchen. I wouldn’t need lunch. In return for a silver button, he gave me a map of Cragglemouth, a week’s lodging, and twenty cupros—enough cash, he assured me, to eat well and get more appropriate clothes.
I spent the day being photographed at the police station, exploring the town, and buying clothing that didn’t raise eyebrows. Despite some incredulity at the sight of my papers, by evening I was a member of the West Cragglemouth Library, of a small athletics club affiliated to the Temple of Darken’s Revelation, and of a juggling club for recovering alcoholics, where I had somehow volunteered as an instructor. I knew how many days constituted each month—thirty-two, except for the shorter December—and had some insight into the value of the currency.
On Wednesday morning, something hushed against my window an hour before Dempster’s mechanical alarm clock had a chance to do its job. I sat up, stretched forward, and flicked at the curtain.
Gray clouds covered the sky. Rain, the first unscheduled rain I had ever witnessed, splashed against the pane, each drop creating a subliminal hiss as it spattered on glass.
I grabbed my clothes and dressed by the window. The changing wind brought swirls and flurries, a brief cascade, and peace as the rain eased to nothing. The sound of the last drops was lost against the clanging of my alarm.
By the time I had eaten the generous breakfast Dempster provided, sunshine forced its way through gaps in the clouds.
I pushed my plate away. “Today, I’m looking for work. Any advice?”
Dempster handed me an umbrella. “Be back by evening. There’s a storm forecast.”
I set off as soon as I had eaten. My aim was to reach the labor office, a journey of two miles according to the town map, before it opened. It didn’t work out that way.
The shortest route took me along Darken Walk, a narrow lane that led from Bluefinch Avenue to the commercial district in the city center. It traversed a tributary of the Craggle via a pedestrian bridge, timber standing on ancient wooden piles. A harsh wind set my coat flapping as I crossed. I raised the collar.
At the high point of the bridge, I caught a sight of the distant ocean, beyond what looked like an industrial estate. I had seen the ocean during my descent, and heard its waters once, or dreamed I did, as I struggled for sleep the first night. Large boats—business or pleasure, I couldn’t guess which—were moored in a loose skein across the sea. Dark clouds over the horizon hinted at the predicted storm.
I hurried on. At the far end of the bridge, pinned to a wooden post, was a rain-soaked page that wouldn’t survive any coming storm.
Reward: six cupros for nelly’s return. thirty cupros on conviction of her captors.
It is with great sadness that we announce the loss of our friend and companion, napped from her own pen for Darken knows what evil purpose.
Two years old, almost. Purple streaks down her throat. She answers to the name Nelly, or to any other.
There followed contact details but no further explanation of Nelly’s nature.
Around the poster, metal tacks indicated a history of posting.
A missing turkey? A strange choice of pet, but I had seen no mammals apart from horses and goats in the butcher’s shop, and humans.
I hurried on. By the time I reached Silversmith Square, Cragglemouth’s center of commerce, steam rose from its cobbles.
On each side of the square, widely spaced stone buildings four or five stories high gave a sense of affluence: the Bank of Eden, with its great glass frontage; the marble-clad Heyho Bank; Draco Trading, built with massive blocks of black granite with steps at its front of the same material; Cragglemouth Insurance, a paler granite with a red stone inlay. There were others, but no labor office.
A patch of grass with ornamental trees filled the middle of the square. Standing at its center, with a wooden bench near each of its four sides, a stone statue dominated the scene. Motorized vehicles on the cobbled road outnumbered horse-drawn vehicles, though there were few of either.
A man in a dark–blue suit hurried toward me, collar held around his cheeks. I called to him as he passed, asking directions to the labor office. He pointed toward a side street but didn’t slacken his stride.
As I approached the street he had indicated, two small children, who had been watching me from the green center, ran across the cobbles. They stopped in front of me. Both were dressed in tattered, ill-fitting clothing and were barefoot. They didn’t seem in poor health, but their pleading eyes and their limp, quivering mouths suggested great sadness. A practiced sadness?
Did they see me as an outsider, a new target? The younger, a girl of no more than eight, held out a hand. “Spare a coin, Mister.”
Dempster had warned me not to interact, but I couldn’t ignore them. I fumbled in my pocket and found a fifty–cent coin—enough, if I understood the currency, to buy them each a cheap meal. I held it out. “No home?”
The girl snatched the coin before I had finished speaking. She turned it in her hand and frowned. “Hey, Mister.” A flutter of her eyelids. “I’ll do anything for a couple of cupros. Anything at all.”
A piercing whistle sounded from nearby. I turned. Two police officers rushed toward me. One shouted an order to stop, but when I turned back, the children had fled. I waited. “I didn’t see which way they went, Officers.”
The first policeman pointed a baton at me then jabbed it into my ribs. I stumbled. He lowered his face to mine. “You think this is a joke?”
The second policeman, larger and fiercer than the first, also had his baton directed at my midsection. “We saw you give that child money. If I don’t get your papers in five seconds, you are under arrest.”
He had my papers in three seconds. He looked at the single sheet, stepped back, muttered something to his companion, and jotted a few words into a notebook. “It’s your lucky day, my friend. For some reason, new refugees get a little leeway.” He handed my papers back. “If you take my advice, you’ll keep well clear of the disposables. This is on your record now.”
I pocketed the paper and edged away, the memory of a baton in my ribs still strong. So was the memory of that well-fed child whose story I needed to know.
Twice in three days, I had been approached by child beggars. The first pair had been starving, the second pair, living in the center of Cragglemouth’s commercial district, better fed, supporting themselves by a trade older than humanity, which brought no credit to a civilized nation.
I found it difficult to worry about the plight of a missing turkey in a land where the welfare of children received such scant regard.
To have a voice, I needed to survive. With aching ribs and a pounding heart, I set off toward to the labor office.
Ms. Winterthorn brushed a strand of gray hair from her forehead and stared at me over her half-glasses. Our ten–minute chat hadn’t impressed her.
She took a form from a pile on her desk and handed it to me. “Fill this in. At least we can get your lack of experience on our records.”
I took the form. The words were easy enough to read, but answering proved difficult. All the eye movements I tried failed to create a tick or a word in any box. “How?”
“You can write, can’t you?”
Writing by hand, like knitting or starship design, was a skill practiced by few scholars in the butt end of Earth’s thirty-fifth century.
Ms. Winterthorn sighed and held her hand over the form. When she had filled it in according to my responses, she wrote my name on a slip of paper. “Just copy this in here, and we’ll call it a signature.”
I took the pen she offered and struggled to fill in my name.
She shook her head. “I like a challenge, but this is ridiculous. You seem intelligent, but you are almost thirty-five years old with no work record and no certificate of education. You can’t shoe a horse. You can’t drive a car. With no proven skills, it’s farm labor or factory work.”
I slumped against the chair. “Just those? I have to do something.”
“It’s up to you. New jobs come in every day, so keep popping in.”
Neither farm labor nor factory work had great appeal, but if nothing else came up in a few days, I’d take what I had to.
Back in the square, I saw no sign of the two children. Were they sharing a fifty–cent meal at some cheap café? I tried not to think of the alternatives.
For an hour, I wandered through the commercial district. I bought lunch far enough from the square that a cupro covered two courses with change. Where next?
Where did they come from, the children of the streets? Why were they allowed to live as they did?
With no omninet available, or any of its antecedents, I headed for the library and showed my temporary registration card to the clerk. “I need to know the origins of the disposables. Where should I begin?”
The clerk led me to the classical–fiction shelves, where she handed me An Orphan’s Tale—a novel written a century and a half earlier and soon, she assured me, to become an EBC film. I took it to a reading desk, sat down, and began to read.
The first chapters did little more than set the background. I found them fascinating,