| Geographic: The Ranch
Journal Entry 202 / 00100
Seren, Yavar 07, 00100
September 09, 1984
Alka sighed and stretched out on the floor of her cabin, lying on the
traditional Uncia bed she had come to prefer to the elevated platforms
many Pendorians used, even Felinzi. She had learned from her trip to
Terra that the bed she used was more like that of a group of people known
as Asian, and she had come to wonder how much of the Uncia mindset had
been programmed by conceptions and perhaps misconceptions of that mindset.
This had led to her current assignment. Care of the human called Xing
Kanorak, the representative of the Geographic expedition to
Pendor. She had counted on an interesting assignment and had hoped to
learn something from Xing about China and its ways. She had been reading
Confucius recently in a edition, and had moved on to Meng Tzu
and Mo Tzu, one the inheritor of Confucius's teachings and the other his
rival. Lao Tzu was fascinating; Chuang Tzu, on the other hand, was a mess.
She had learned a lot from all them.
From Xing, though, she had learned very little. He was a quiet man, she
had learned. He also carried with him a profound sadness that hung on
his shoulders like an unwanted coat to be carried home even after the
day had grown hot. She could not understand him, try as she might to
talk with him. She knew that he woke up at night, sometimes screaming,
but he would not talk about it. Jamie, the ship's AI, would not tell
her more than that.
She had decided to try another route after talking to Trellin, Ms.
Suttprathana's guide. She still felt as unsure of herself as a tliel
out of the tanks. Steeling herself against his reproachful eye and his
intimate barriers, she waved her hand in front of the doorplate.
The door opened. "Hello," he said politely. He was significantly shorter
than she, with thin black hair that fell about his face like unruly wire.
He wore an unremarkable ensemble of a collared pullover and denim pants.
He even wore socks, although he had learned from the crew not to wear
shoes. In the low-gravity portions of the ship one needed her toes.
"Jamie says you wanted to see me," she began. That in itself had been
remarkable. After three months on board Xing rarely, if ever, expressed
an interest in her visiting him for any length of time. He was dismissive
towards her, always wrapped in his melancholy. Wolf had described Xing
as a 'wet blanket,' the weight of which dragged at whomever was around.
He blinked up at her. For the first time in many visits he seemed lively.
He actually smiled. "Jamie says we're stopping to transfer fresh meats and
vegetables on board from another ship. I'd like to see this other ship.
Can you arrange it?"
Jamie? Can I?
Captain says it's fine. The Ranch is clear already so you can go over
if you like. You're free to use the disks.
She returned to where he was and said, "If you like, we can go now."
"Allow me to get my camera, then." He turned around and grabbed a black,
rectangular bag. She watched as he carefully checked his equipment. It
seemed to her that here was a pleasure he was ready to indulge in, one
that seemed at odds with the dark clouds that pursued him. He looked
up at her, anticipation on his face, and she felt an honest smile creep
into her muzzle. "I am ready."
"Let's go, then." She led him around the corridor, up a spire, and into
a room that previously had been off-limits to the Terrans. They hadn't
intended on revealing this technology to the Terrans at quite this stage,
but there was little helping it. If Xing was going to get to see the
axolotl ranch they were going to have to use the SDisks.
As he walked in, he eyed the single white disk inlaid on the floor
with suspicion. She grinned and gestured for him to join her. He did so
cautiously. "Is this what I think it is?" he asked.
"Jamie, we're ready."
The room blinked. The room they ended up in was different only in color
from the room they had left. She was grateful to Hahpi for equalizing the
pressure in the two rooms before they had left. Xing was staring at her,
his eyes wide. "Teleportation?"
"Transposition is what the techies call it. Two objects of equal volume
can be transposed between locations. I don't understand a word of how it
works, and apparently the energy it takes is massive, but we use them
for almost everything. They transport fluids very efficiently, though,
which makes them very useful for some systems." She grinned. "But you
need two of them to make it work."
"So you can't just send someone somewhere?"
"No, you need a pair to do the tranposing."
Xing nodded.. He pulled out his and began snapping pictures of
the room, even if it was little more than a nondescript cube with an an
emergency life support closet. She led him towards the door.
It opened onto what looked like a long room that disappeared into the
distance for the curvature of the spacecraft. The ceiling was very low,
barely enough for her to stand up straight, and neither of them nearly
approached two meters in height. But for a single, narrow walkway the
floor was covered with plant beds, now empty and dark. It was apparent
from the low lighting and empty beds that no growing was underway in here.
Alka knew a little about gardening. "I think this soil has been exhausted
and we don't have the proper seeds to do rotation. So this is the last
phase before we land on Pendor. When we get there, the contents of this
ship will be scattered over a mid-intensity forest where it'll go into
being seedbed for future generations."
She watched with amusement as he depleted a roll of film just taking
pictures of what was, to her, an empty room. She tried to appreciate it
from his point of view. It was probably not a new idea to Terrans that for
long voyages into space they would have to bring their own crops and grow
them, but they had probably never before seen it put into practice before.
She supposed that it would sell magazines when he got home.
She led him along the walkway to a ladder that ran up into the core of
the ship. "Follow me," she said.
She started up the ladder, assuming confidently that he would follow. She
had worn a skirt today with no underthings and wondered if he would
take the opportunity she had presented him. She hoped so. Anything to
get him out of that funk he carried with him.
She reached the intersection. The apparent acceleration here was about a
third of Pendorian normal. "This is where we grow the meat, on this floor.
You're not squeamish, are you, Xing?"
She watched his eyes as he considered her question. He seemed to be
trying to remember something, but finally he just shook his head and said,
"No, I am not."
"Good. Because the room I'm about to show you could be found in some of
your horror movies." She opened the door and led him in.
Inside, four rows of plexiglass tubes stood empty and silent. The rows
stretched down the hallway, again disappearing from sight against the
curvature of the vessel. Each tube was large enough to hold a full-size
cow carcass, although at the moment all they appeared to have within them
was a plastic replica of a bovine skeleton. "You grow the meat in those?"
he said even as he again primed the flash.
"That's right. That's why I said the meat isn't the best. It's not
naturally grown, but directed by an advancement of the healing growth
process. So it all tastes the same and it's all under-exercised. Some
people claim that makes the meat more tender, but I think it's missing
some of the flavor of the meat with all that." She grinned. "And I
He snapped more pictures, going down the rows. "I take it an AI runs this?
It is very clean in here."
"Of course. Hahpi, are you there?"
"Always. Hello, Alka. You are looking well."
She looked up at the ceiling. "You don't even know who I am."
"No," the AI agreed, "but I know what Jamie thinks of you, and I trust
her opinions usually."
Xing followed her lead and looked up at the ceiling. "Hahpi. Is that a
There was a chuckle from nowhere. "Pendorian names are all fictional
constructs," the AI replied mysteriously. "AI names especially so. No,
my name comes from an Egyptian fertility god, one who made the waters
of the Nile rise and bring life to the surrounding cities. Since that is
the role' I am playing in this mission, it is the name I have taken for
the time being. I do not keep a permanent name, an unusual thing for a
Pendorian, but AIs in general are unusual beings."
"Thank you for explaining it to me," he said. He was so earnest at the
non-explanation that Alka couldn't help but laugh. The sound apparently
alarmed him and she tamped down on it as quickly as she could.
"What else is there to see?" he asked.
"Well, there's the sewage system. It's still running, cleaning up the
last of the waste products. It's a highly efficient system; we don't
use any complex artificial chemicals in these farms and the amount of
power we have available allows us to render our waste material sterile. I
imagine it stinks in there right now."
"It does," Hahpi confirmed. "And it's hot. I would not recommend the
"We could show you the seed storage and materials cargo areas. Some
"I would like that. Does this ship have a bridge or is it intended to
be fully automated?"
Hahpi answered. "It does not have a bridge. That was removed after
its construction. I am an independent entity, the first of my kind I
understand, a spacefaring robot."
"I didn't know that," Alka said, surprised. "Congratulations!"
"Thank you!" Hahpi responded. "I don't imagine I will do this for long. I
wish to return to Pendor and my Nixie shell."
"Nixie?" Xing asked.
"Underwater version of, well, this. A robotic shell. She's a construction
"Independent, loner, and proud of it." Hahpi's pride came through with
every syllable. "That's why I was asked to do this job. But I'm not a
spacer. I can do it, but I don't enjoy it enough to come back to it soon."
"I see," Xing said.
"Come on," Alka said. "I'll show you the cargo holds."
"You came," Alka said, looking up at Xing. He was dressed in better
clothes than usual, and he had shaved. "Thank you."
"After the tour you gave me this afternoon, it is all I could do to return
the favor." He took the seat she indicated. A male Tindal approached
out of nowhere, deposited two glasses of water, and disappeared. "What
is this place?"
"The best restaurant in three light years," Alka replied.
Xing glanced at the room. There were but four tables, each large enough
only for two people, tightly packed into a small room. A single door
led off to what he assumed to be the kitchen. "It is probably the only
restaurant in three light years," Xing observed.
"I think one of the other ships has one. But I assure you that this
is the best one in three light years. The alternative is that it's the
worst one." She gestured for him to sit down. "I wouldn't invite you to
the worst one. So, have you told your friends about the other ship? And
the SDisk system?"
Xing nodded. "They were surprised by the transportation system, but
they seemed more impressed by the fact that I had managed to get into
the other ship." He glanced around. "But you didn't invite me here to
talk about work."
"In a way, I did. I wanted you to sample some of the fare that we cook
using the fresh slaughter from Hahpi's ship, and I wanted to talk about
work. My work." The waiter brought soup.
"May I ask you a question, Alka? How do these people, the ones who run
this 'restaurant,' get paid?"
"They don't. Not in the sense that you think, Xing. They get paid
simply by having something to do. When you live as long as we do,
having something to do is an important thing to have. Besides, it's
embedded in our instincts to contribute to the society around us. Your
instincts program you to be both a social creature and a loner, to be
part of a successful community and to look out for your own interests
within it. Our instincts allow us to get much more pleasure in just being
seen doing right by the community. And unlike your culture, we have to
see it and be seen doing it. We can't accumulate symbols of success,
like money or power; they don't work for us. They literally do not
register. We understand how they work for Terrans, and we've even begun
to understand why they work. But we could never be like that. What you
think of as retirement would just be agony for us."
"I will try to understand you better, then," he said. "So these people
are being paid in, what?"
"Respect," Alka replied. "Even if none of us ever encounter any of
them again, the AIs remember who they are, and can communicate that
to others who may want to work with them." Alka ate her soup with an
oversize spoon, and Xing followed along. Although he didn't recognize
the particular recipe, he did recognize hints of coriander, ginger,
anise, and especially cilantro.
Their empty bowls were removed, and their water glasses filled. "You
said you wanted to talk about your job?"
"I know you think that I'm here to keep you from seeing things that we
don't want you to see, but that's really not the case, Xing. I'll take
you anywhere you want to go, and if you insist, I'll let you get yourself
irradiated, evacuated, and other unpleasant ways to end your life. It's my
job to be your guide, not your handler. We are not in China." She paused
to marshal her thoughts. "But I'm also here to help you if you're having
other problems. To be your friend, if you'll let me. Jamie told me that
you're having trouble sleeping, that you wake up at night screaming. If
you'll let me, I'd like to help you. Or, at least, understand you. Jack
thinks there's something very wrong with you; a member of the Geographic
should be enthusiastic about his tasks, especially one as significant
as this. But you're not. You mope around, you don't talk to anyone else,
you barely get up the interest to take pictures."
Dinner plates were placed in front of them, helping him to avoid
the conversation. "We must eat," he said. Alka tried to hide her
disappointment as they ate. The main meal was as excellent as the soup,
and she noted that Xing's plate was slightly more sparse than her own,
a nod to his more efficient metabolism.
When they were done and dinner cleared away, the waiter poured two
glasses of wine and left them alone in the quiet room. They were the
only two people there that evening. Xing picked his up and tasted it,
smiled, and took a mouthful. It was one of the first smiles Alka had
seen since they had left Earth orbit. "My offer?"
"Alka, what happens if you fail me? If you fail to be a good guide and
we have a falling out over something and you end up going back to Pendor
without your assignment?"
Alka was taken back by the question. "I don't really know. We've never had
an issue like this before. I was asked to go by the staff because they
had assessed that I was most qualified for this work with you. Anyone
else assigned would be second-best, I guess, but it might reflect on me
that I couldn't adapt. Why?"
Xing nodded his head to one side in a sort of shrug. "I just wanted to
make sure I was not indebted to you if you were to lose your job. It
would seem that your people understand honor the way we once did in our
"Xing, this is about being practical."
"Indeed," he said. He rose from the table. "Excuse me." He left in what
seemed to Alka to be a great hurry, leaving her behind.
She tried to fight the tears forming in her eyes. She didn't succeed.
Jamie's voice cut through her sleep like a knife, waking her instantly.
"Lights," she said as she sat up, looking around bewilderedly at her room.
"What time is it?"
"Eleven twenty," the AI announced calmly. "I know. It is very late. But
Xing is at your door."
Alka glanced around the room, suddenly wide awake. It was passable for
visitors. "Give me a minute." She grabbed a simple robe and tied it
about her body. "Let him in."
The door opened. Xing stood there, looking across at her, his eyes
red-rimmed with a lack of sleep. Or was it tears? Whatever it was, he had
come to her for a reason and she was determined not to fail him. "Come
in," she said, stifling a yawn.
"Thank you. I was afraid you would not want to see me at this hour. Not
after I stood you up like that."
"It's what I do," she said. She had a small cabin without chairs or
tables. She indicated a place on the floor, and he took a seat. She
recovered a hot pot of tea and two cups, and offered him one.
He accepted. "No, it is what you want to do. But I know that I you
by leaving you. I do not mean to you, Alka. But..." He paused. "I
feel I cannot work with you if I do not tell you the truth."
"The truth?" she asked. Suddenly she wondered if Xing was less
photographer and more government official, sent to ferret out the "state
secrets" of Pendor, whatever those were.
He was a long time before speaking. Finally, he said, "Four months before
I agreed to this assignment, my called me to tell me that she was
pregnant. I thought that was wonderful, that we would have a soon.
But then my told me that she had already scheduled an abortion. The
child was going to be a girl."
Alka gasped. Pregnancy termination was permitted on Pendor but it was also
terribly rare. There were so few people to begin with, and contraception
was so effective, that the concept of an "unwanted pregnancy" was almost
unheard of. Even when the realized after the birth that she was
ill-prepared to deal with a child, something which happened surprisingly
often on Pendor, there were enough people who wanted to raise children
that the Gift Child system ensured they were all wanted one way or
another. Horrified, she finally managed to rasp out, "I had heard that
that happens. In your country."
Xing merely looked down. "I did not think it would happen to me. Yodo
was a very strong woman who often got her way. Her ambition was to be
the head of a strong and prosperous household. She could not do that
if she did not have a son. If we were lucky enough, or rich enough,
to afford the taxes the state would put on us for a second child, she
might have let a live. But not as firstborn. I did not want her to
kill the child. I loved Yodo too much; I could not bear the thought of
her killing anything that came from her.
"Yodo went to the hospital despite my pleading and my angry words. On the
way home, however, she and fourteen others were killed in an accident. The
bus they were in lost a tire when going over a bridge. They fell into the
river and drowned. It was a bus she rode often. It could have happened
on any day. But now she is gone, and our last words were hateful to each
other." He sat, his knees drown up to his chest, and began to cry. "And
now I have no family, no wife, and no daughter. That is why I agreed to
this trip. I wanted to get away from Earth."
"From your hurt," Alka said.
"Yes, that too," Xing replied. "But I have carried Yodo and Ping with me."
"Ping? Is that what you wanted to name your little girl?"
Xing nodded. "I do not know what she would have been like, but it would
have been wonderful to have a family. I wanted that family. And now it
is all gone." He sobbed again. "All gone."
Alka reached out and touched him on his shoulder. Xing reacted with a
shrug. She ignored him, instead crawling around behind him, hugging him
to her. Finally, he capitulated to her persuasion and cried against her
shoulders. She held him through the night, even as he cried himself to
sleep. Jamie lowered the lights even as Alka laid him out on the sleeping
mat. She tossed her blanket over him. As silently as possible she pulled
out another mat and curled up next to her charge.
In the morning, she awoke to find Xing sitting beside her, one leg
drawn up to his chest. He was watching her intently. "How long have you
"Only a short time," he assured her. "I wanted thank you for the place
to sleep last night. I did not have the dream, which is a first for
me. Thank you."
"You're welcome, I guess. I'm not sure I did anything."
"You did enough," he replied. "You listened. I had not told anyone about
Yodo since the accident. The news about her came to me by telegram from
some officials. Now someone else knows and understands."
"'Knows,' yes. But I might never really understand the depth of your
pain, Xing. Death, and abortion are rare on my world. I may not know
what you're going through until I lose a loved one." She looked up. "I
may not ever know."
"Just that same, you have some knowledge now." He reached out and touched
her hand. "And I would like you to stay on as my guide."
She grinned. "Thanks."
"Thank you," he said. "Let us see if we can make this adventure
"I'm sure we will."
The Journal Entries of Kennet R'yal Shardik, et. al., and Related Tales
are Copyright (c) 1989-2000 Elf Mathieu Sternberg. Distribution limited
to electronic media not-for-profit use only. All other rights are reserved
to the author.