by Moira Sheehan
LORN FINISHED ADDING the last stone to the cairn then stood up with the careful movements of a man used to operating at low gravity. He only wasted a few minutes considering a tombstone; there was little point in marking a grave on a planet where no other human had ever trod and where no other was ever likely to walk in the future. He did not look back as he loped toward the Marie Louise.
Once inside he scourged the ship for any trace of the girl, stuffing her clothes into an anonymous storage crate. He only paused once and that was when he picked up the ridiculous little music box. He opened the lid and listened briefly to the trite melody that Elise had persisted in playing even after he had introduced her to the majesty of the great composers. He stifled a pang of regret and tossed the box into the crate; it was easier if one kept nothing, he had leamt that lesson long ago.
The routine of lifting off settled him. He checked the fuel and decided, as always, to err on the side of caution. Although he had fuel enough for two more jumps, the next two systems might not have a suitable gas giant for skimming. Early in his career Lorn had been reduced to skimming a sun and he had vowed never to allow the situation to arise again. Dying because Lady Luck decided against you was a risk that went with the job; dying because of rank stupidity was not.
He instructed the computer to calculate a course that would take them to the nearest gas giant. Elise had asked him why he had chosen a primitive keyboard interface for the computer when every other fitting was so fine. It had been one of the first questions that she had asked and he could could still hear the fear in her timid, little girl voice. He smiled. It had not taken her long to realise that her new master would not beat her for displaying her curiosity. She had not understood his answer and she had tried to hide her confusion with a small, nervous laugh. He had not expected her to understand. It was her first trip into space, and she could not comprehend that a man could become so lonely that he fell passionately in love with the warm, female tones of his computer.
He shook his head to dislodge the unwelcome memories and decided that updating the log could wait until he was feeling more calm. His fingers hesitated over the keys that would initiate one of his twenty favourite dream sequences, and at the very last moment he chose Three over Thirteen. He settled back into the perfect fit of his chair and felt the whisper touch of the hypodermic at his neck.
Some explorers were content with the fantasies stored in their data banks. Lorn knew that his need for human companionship was both a weakness and a strength. It stopped him becoming totally disconnected from reality but he had yet to find a woman who could sustain his interest for more than a year in the confines of the Marie Louise. Jenna had been the best because she had seemed so independent. It had been a shock when he had found her lying dead with the arteries in her wrists opened. That had been the day that Lorn had admitted that he would never understand women. Perhaps he would never realise that he found all humans, male and female, equally alien.
He was vaguely aware that Dream Three was being brought to a point where he could be woken without the return to reality being psychologically or physiologically traumatic. He heard the gentle hiss of the antidote entering the vein in his neck. He tested his muscles then moved towards the head in anticipation of the urgent bodily demands that always followed once the antidote took hold.
Skimming the outermost reaches of a planet's atmosphere for fuel always gave Lorn great satisfaction. It was one of the few tasks that a human pilot could perform significantly better than even the best autopilot, and after thirty years Lorn was more than skilled, he was a master. Within an hour the tanks were full and the autopilot was taking the ship clear of the planet for the next Jump.
Elise's death had made him reconsider his plans. He suppressed a small surge of anger that he had allowed his hormones to overcome his better judgement. The other woman would have been better; she had been older and the depth of her misery would have made her all the more grateful. Five years of servitude would have seemed a small price to such a woman, especially when the payment was her freedom. As it was he had the choice of following his original schedule and enduring three years alone, or of heading for civilisation and accepting the inevitable losses.
A review of his accounts decided him. It had been a profitable expedition so far with two habitables and three systems so rich in rare elements that he would earn a bonus for each from the Corporation. He would hold one habitable back. Lady Luck might not smile so brightly on his next expedition. Cisco would pay a fat bonus for Inexve 1, even if it was a bit hot and the gravity was low, and they would be pleased that Inexve 3 was such a good terrafomiing prospect. Lorn always marvelled at the long-term planning of the Corporations. The corporation accountants thought nothing of paying handsomely for information that would not be used for another ten generations.
Of course if the expedition had not been so successful Elise would have not been tempted. Lorn had realised quite quickly that the girl was greedy, it had shown in the amount she ate once food was freely available, and in her avaricious eyes when he had taken her shopping. He had not expected her acquisitiveness to extend to his ship and the priceless information in its data banks so it had been a cruel shock when the security system he had programmed into the computer had alerted him to her clandestine enquiries. Taking her out on the surface with him when he surveyed Ceiool 1 had been a test that she had failed. He had felt no satisfaction at her surprise when the laser torch she swung across his pressured suit proved to be no more than a harmless beam of weak light. He had cut the radio link so that he would not hear her pleas for mercy as he swung the cutting beam of his own torch towards her torso.
He decided to head for Epsilon Eridani, exploring two Type K orange systems on the way and stopping at Aymiay. He had found his best habitables around Type K suns, including Phiface. He recalled the wonderful moment when he had realised that he had found a near perfect habitable; surface temperature 20 degrees Celsius, gravity within two percent of Earth normal. He had taken the information to the Cisco Corporation and earned himself a massive finder's fee and a twenty-five year contract. The finder's fee had bought the Marie Louise, and the credit Cisco had paid him since had allowed him to turn the standard Asp into a tiny personal paradise. Cisco were talking about settling Phiface but Lorn would only believe it when it happened - they had been discussing it for the last twenty years.
Neither of the Type K systems yielded a prize. Lorn made a note of the various planets and moons and collected as much data as he could without making a pass over each planet individually. Cisco were only interested in the good stuff. He was free to sell mundane information to both the Federation and the Imperial Central Libraries. Some explorers sneered at such paltry payments but not Lorn. For Lorn every credit earned was a morsel of insurance against the consequences of losing the Marie Louise or against an old age spent eking out his Cisco pension.
Once the two Type K systems were behind him the Marie Louise soon Jumped into explored space. Lorn plotted a course for Aymiay that would take him through his favourite systems. He refuelled at Canayay and lingered to admire the two binary stars, one like a diamond paired with a topaz and the other two blood red rubies, then at Mibean with its five suns and Intiho where he manoeuvred the Marie Louise to where he could watch the yellow and white suns rising over the coloured rings of the single planet. Such beauty soothed him.
By the time the Marie Louise Jumped into the Aymiay system more than half a year had passed and Elise was no more than past experience that had been edited so it rested better in Lorn's memory. Lorn was weary of the dream sequences and he recognised that his desperation for female company was making him anticipate his reunion with Alista more than was advisable. He decided to find a professional companion as soon as he had landed and booked the Marie Louise into Charlie's at Goldstein Starport.
Charlie was the Marie Louise's creator. She had taken a standard Asp and created a masterpiece. Lorn knew that the grizzled little woman charged him far more than the going rate; part of him dreaded the sharp intake of breath that preceded the inevitable comment, "It'll cost, you know. Work like that costs." Charlie knew Lorn well enough to keep her prices marginally short of the level that would drive him away to find another mechanic. Lorn trusted Charlie and Charlie capitalised on the fact that explorers were paranoid and trusted no-one.
This time Lorn only listened to Charlie's usual spiel with half an ear. All his senses other than that half ear were rivetted on the girls walking through the repair yards. Aymiay was hot even this far from the equator, hot enough that the standard apparel for women was skimpy shorts, a brief halter and a generous layer of ultra violet filter. Lorn was past caring that only a very small number of the women had the kind of body that suited such a fashion; every one of them looked wonderful.
"I thought you always travelled with a woman?" Charlie said bluntly after he had failed to answer her fourth question.
Lorn's attention was suddenly focused on the old woman. Most people would have shrunk from the intensity of his glare but not Charlie. She spat a globule of her chewing tobacco into a convenient spittoon and began to repeat her comment. Lorn interrupted her. "I do. There was an unfortunate accident."
Charlie leered, "So that's why you are back so soon. I wondered." She patted a convenient piece of hull. "She doesn't need a full service but I'll give a thorough going over. I have some new lasers in," she suggested hopefully.
Lorn shook his head. "I don't waste credit on weapons. I might start getting crazy ideas about fighting instead of running. I'll pay for a full inspection and call you in two days time to see if there is anything that needs further attention."
"So I can't contact you?" the old woman asked.
Lorn refused to give her any information that would end up as gossip. "No. I will call you, in two days." As usual he was loathe to walk away from his precious ship. "Look after her, Charlie," he said in a tone that was half request and half threat.
Lorn booked into the Hilton. The Hilton was civilised; the rooms were almost as comfortable as his cabin on the Marie Louise and the food was much better than anything the shipboard synthesizer could produce. In addition the Hilton provided a high quality, and discrete, escort service. After two days Lorn felt capable of contacting Alista in Donaldsville.
Charlie had found her standard number of minor faults with his ship. Lorn suspected that she worked to a formula; one major component to be refitted every five years and two minor faults for every year between overhauls. He agreed to pay the estimated price and warned her not to go over by more than ten percent. She tried to tempt him with a new interface for the computer which would allow him to give instructions verbally but still restrict the computer to communicating via the screen. Lorn considered it but decided that he would think about it during his next trip, there were times when even his own voice annoyed him.
Once he had closed his connection with Charlie, Lorn requested a link with the Marlbron residence in Donaldsville and asked for Alista. She was out and the irritatingly polite computerised voice asked him if he would like to speak to Kharon Marlbron, to Lester Marlbron or whether he would like to leave a message. He refused all the alternatives and closed the connection. He went shopping to kill time and regretted it immediately as he hated the activity and it reminded him of Elise. He bought the first presents that came to hand for Alista and Lester then hurried back to the haven of the Hilton.
Alista was home when he made his second attempt. Lorn schooled his expression into polite interest as her image filled the screen. She was still beautiful, even as she approached forty, and he was glad that he had found other female companionship before calling her. Alista could not abide men with their tongues hanging out.
They weaved their way through the complex dance of pleasantries that always marked their reunions. Slowly Lorn established that Alista had no man in her life at that particular time and that his presence at the villa would not be unwelcome. She also told him what he already knew from the house computer - Lester was home. There was a short silence.
"You could come here," Lorn suggested tentatively.
Alista laughed. "He's only a boy, Lorn, surely the great space explorer can cope with one boy?"
Lorn was stung that she should mock him. "I'll be there tomorrow."
The public shuttle was uncomfortable and crowded and Lorn wished that he had hired a small craft for his own personal use. By the time he had fought his way out of the public terminal in Donaldsville he was more than willing to pay an outrageous fee for a private taxi to take him to the Marlbron residence. He settled back in the privacy of the rear compartment and tried to dismiss the memory of so many people crowded close. It had reminded him of his childhood on Earth, the constant overcrowding and the tiny apartment that he had shared with his parents, his grandparents and his brother. He briefly yearned for the inorganic solitude of space.
The Marlbron villa looked almost the same as three years before except that the climbing rose had finally died. There was a youthful replacement that had yet to scale the wall, never mind spreading over the lintel so that the roses hung over the doorway. Lorn regretted the passing of an old friend. He had plucked one of those overhanging roses and handed it to Alista on the occasion of their first meeting. That had been eighteen years before, a lifetime before, before Alista had been reunited with the lost brother who had come between them.
It was Kharon who answered the door and the two men stared at each other for a few minutes before their real emotions were covered with the facade of politeness that allowed them to stand under the same roof. Kharon was small like his sister and eerily like her in looks with the same dark curls and the same velvet brown eyes.
"I hope your life is proceeding well," Lorn said politely as he stepped over the threshold.
"It proceeds most well. I have a wife now and she is with child," Kharon answered proudly.
Lorn grasped a faint wisp of memory of meeting the young woman in question on his last visit. She had been plain and had said nothing but Kharon had obviously thought most highly of her. Lorn could not remember her name so he settled for the tritest of comments and ignored Kharon's barely concealed contempt. "Fortune smiles on you," he said, then continued before Kharon felt obliged to reply. "Alista is expecting me."
Lorn was shown to Alista's apartments surrounding the garden in the centre of the villa. Unlike the rest of the villa Alista's apartments were always cool and the plants that grew in the air-conditioned garden were varieties that would never survive in the hot and acrid climate beyond the villa. Alista was sitting on the low wall surrounding the lily pond. She was wearing a loose white dress and trailing one hand in the water. Lorn was immediately suspicious, Alista must want something very badly to be so blatantly manipulative.
He discovered what that something was the next morning. It had all been rather too perfect; his favourite music, his favourite food, an excellent wine and his favourite companion. He was so relaxed and contented that Alista's words almost flowed over him. Then what she had said registered and he sprang to his feet to pace about the room.
"If the boy needs to go to the Sol system I will pay for his passage. He can go on a luxury liner, any boy of seventeen would like to travel on a luxury liner."
Alista's brow furrowed in a manner that reminded Lorn that this was one of the richest women on Coopersworld and that her fortune had been built up from nothing by dogged determination. "I do not want him to travel by luxury liner, I want him to travel with you. A boy should know his father."
Lorn decided to make a stand. "No. We are strangers and the boy resents me, an attitude that is perfectly normal under the circumstances. Forcing us into each other's company is not going to make us into father and son."
Alista's mouth was set hard. "Family is important. He is your son, your only child."
Lorn knew that the argument was lost even before it had properly begun; it had been lost when he saw Alista sitting at the edge of the lily pond, but he battled on. "So he can have all my credit when I die. He can even have my secret list of planets." He gave up and started to beg. "Please don't ask me to do this, Alista, the boy hates me, he would much prefer to travel on a liner."
Alista knew that she had won. The frown vanished and her lips curved in a smile. "Oh Lorn, you would think that Lester was still a little boy who hides grail bats in your clothes cupboard. He is a young man and a very clever young man at that. He has been accepted by… the Academy."
Lorn imagined any son of his in the uniform of the Federation Navy and shuddered.
The trip from Donaldsville to Goldstein Starport was unbearably tense, so much so that Lorn wished that he had taken the public shuttle rather than hired a hopper. The boy had grown over the previous three years but he was still small like his mother and his uncle. Lorn could not see any resemblance between himself and the boy and briefly, hopefully, he wondered if the boy was someone else's child. He knew that it was a vain hope. He had been on Coopersworld from well before the conception until well after the child had been born, it had been the longest spell he had ever spent on a single planet since leaving Earth. He had been young and wealthy and Alista had been even younger and even wealthier, they had thought themselves in love.
Lorn wondered if the boy ever smiled. He took after his uncle in that Kharon Marlbron never smiled. He made another half hearted attempt at conversation.
Unless there is anything that you need to do in Goldstein I intend to lift immediately, he informed the sullen young man.
Fine, stated the young man and the silence resettled.
Lorn should have known better than to try to slip his reluctant passenger past Charlie. She sauntered over just as Lorn had instructed Lester to remain outside the workshop.
Not your usual type of passenger, Charlie observed loudly. I did not know you liked boys.
Lorn took advantage of Lester's initial speechlessness. This is my son, Lester.
Charlie scowled at the young man. You've done a good job of hiding him, he's quite well grown. She studied the young man's features intently. He looks familiar. Got it, Alista Marlborn and that brother of hers. So you are the elusive father, Lorn. Nice piece of gossip. Thanks.
Lorn knew that it was hopeless even to try persuading the garrulous old woman to hold her tongue. Instead he paid the outrageous bill without a quibble and hustled Lester towards the Marie Louise.
What a disgusting old hag, Lester hissed.
Lorn thanked Fortune that Alista had taught the boy some manners; at least he had waited until they were out of earshot. She's the greatest mechanic on Coopersworld, she can be as nosey and as obnoxious as she likes.
She overcharged you, the boy told him.
I know, Lorn admitted.
Why did you pay then? Lester demanded aggressively.
Because I won't let anyone else touch the Marie Louise and she knows it, Lorn replied.
Lester stroked the Asp hull. She is beautiful, he confessed.
Lorn could not stop the fond smile that crept to his lips. Wait until you see the inside. They talked about nothing but the Marie Louise for the first ten days. It filled all the awkward gaps between the comfortable silences. Lorn had begun to think that the boy was more like him than he appeared, he had met far too few people who understood that there was no need to speak to fill a silence. Then, on the eleventh day the first telling question was asked.
Lorn, why did you abandon my mother?
After that the questions came thick and fast. Lorn tried his best to answer them but reasons that had seemed so compelling at the time sounded unconvincing when related to a young man whose view of the world was black and white with no room for grey. The boy had an almost childlike naivety that left Lorn questioning his whole lifestyle. Should he keep a slave? Should he work for a Corporation? Was it immoral to waste so much credit on luxuries?
Even so, Lorn was sorry when they Jumped into the Sol system and separated at Titan City. The boy was provided with naval transportation to the Academy while Lorn was going to take the opportunity to report in person to the Cisco Head-office on Mars. He spent a feverish half day rewriting his report to include the second habitable, if he was going to see someone of importance then it would be worth making a good impression. He saw one of the twenty vice-presidents and felt ridiculously pleased to be received by such a prominent member of the Corporation, even though Lorn knew that the man's sole function in the corporation was to shake hands and to tell people that they were doing a great job.
From Sol, Lorn Jumped to Epsilon Eridani, his favourite holiday haunt. One could get almost anything on Epsilon Eridani provided one had credit, and the Corporation's generosity had ensured that Lorn would have credit for a considerable time to come. After ten days of uninterrupted hedonism he decided it was time to pick out a companion for his next expedition. He contacted the slaver he normally bought from and arranged a viewing. There were seven to chose from, all under thirty. He had almost settled on the youngest, a ripe sixteen year old, when a mental image of Elise came sharply into focus and he selected a small, dark woman of twenty-eight with curly hair and velvet eyes.
Lorn stared at the yellow sun through the visor of his helmet then waited for the filters to readjust as he swept his gaze across the rolling landscape. Cevephi was a one in a thousand find; a habitable with an ambient temperature of 21 degrees Celsius and fifty percent Earth normal gravity. Cisco would pay a huge bonus for this one, maybe as much as they had paid for Phiface. A faint click heralded an incoming communication and Lorn suppressed his annoyance; he wished that he had told Hannah to stay on the ship.
Why can't I open my helmet? she whined. All the tests say that the air is fine.
Lorn was tempted to let her do it. Cisco would pay extra for such a pertinent test of atmospheric purity. He briefly considered the practicalities of isolating Hannah in a separate life support unit on the Marie Louise but decided that there was too great a chance of cross infection. Besides, the expedition was less than a third complete and he did not want to cut a second mission short for the lack of a woman.
The helmet stays shut, he ordered. Back to the ship.
He ignored her as they stood waiting in the airlock for the decontamination cycle to complete but watched her wriggle out of her suit once they were inside. Her hair was beginning to fade back to its original dark brown colour and he wondered yet again why he had chosen a woman with dark hair. He hated dark hair on a woman.
Your hair needs doing, he informed her.
She glanced at him like a frightened rabbit and nodded before escaping into the galley to prepare a meal. Lorn settled into his chair and began the satisfying task of computing his projected profit.