Back | Next




The institution of the Joint Governance Commission was older than the presence of Earth humans on Tupelo—or on the Peace Planet, depending on which race was doing the talking. In the pre-Earth days there were only five races to jointly govern, and the commissioners met in a five-sided building. That structure was now downgraded to serve as a storage facility for farm produce, as the admission of Earth humans required a new building. Not all the Earth humans were happy about what had happened. It seemed to some of them, especially the most patriotic of the Americans, that there was a subtle insult concealed in the fact that the Pentagon had been turned into a root cellar.



The Hexagon—the place where all six of the colonizing races, human and eetie, got together to talk over whatever interests they had in common and, in particular, to stop disagreements before they got started—was larger and fancier than Evesham Giyt had expected. Each species had its own special place: chairs for the bipeds, a pretty little artificial tree for the Kalkaboos to perch in, a kind of couch for the Centaurians, and a two-meter-long cushion, with internal plumbing to keep it warm and damp, for the use of the Slugs.

As Giyt walked in for his first meeting, all five of the other leaders rose to welcome him—the ones that were physically able to rise, anyway. There was an unexpected spatter of applause from the eight or ten people, almost all humans, sparsely occupying the chairs and chair equivalents that were set aside for the use of the audience, whenever there happened to be one. The Centaurian female—the translator in his ear gave her name as Mrs. Brownbenttalon—was taking her turn in the regular rotation as president for the week, and so she made a speech of greeting. Of course Giyt could make nothing of the squeaks and squeals that came from her pursy little mouth, but his translation phone duly rendered it for him in English—well, more or less English: "The total of us who are not from the planet Earth human are overcomely delighted, Large Male Giyt, to have you participate us in our unceasing struggle to ensure no hitting and the getting of along." To ensure peace and friendship, Giyt corrected for himself, thinking it wouldn't hurt to take a look at those translation programs.

She went on from there, giving Giyt time to look around. He had never before seen all six of Tupelo's colonial races in the same place. Mrs. Brownbenttalon, whose Centaurian title was Divinely Elected Savior, looked more or less like a curly-haired anteater, nearly two meters long as she crouched on her cushions. Mr. Brownbenttalon, her main husband, was a tiny thing the size of a chipmunk, and he was crawling around in her fur and whispering in her ear as she spoke. The Delt General Manager was listening intently, sucking on his fingers—maybe, Giyt thought, because of embarrassment over his recent behavior at the mass. In the doll-sized armchair of the Petty-Primes their Responsible One was lackadaisically sprawled and staring uninterestedly at the ceiling. The High Champion of the Kalkaboos was tucked into a fork of its tree, but listening intently with its immense elephant ears. And the Principal Slug was, well, a slug; and if it was showing any sign at all of what was going through its mind, Giyt could not detect it.

When Mrs. Brownbenttalon finished her speech Giyt, feeling foolish but nevertheless obliged to do so, offered a few words in response. All he said was that he was honored to be selected and hoped he would do credit to this body that was responsible for maintaining order on Tupelo. Giyt knew it wasn't a particularly great speech. He didn't expect an ovation, but all the same he was surprised at the chill of the response. The Delt took his fingers out of his mouth to peer at him reprovingly, and even the Slug twitched.

But no one said anything, and then Mrs. Brownbenttalon got down to business. She reported to the commission that the power plant on Energy Island, six kilometers across the strait, was going to need expansion, and each home planet would be required to supply funds and materials for the job. Additional farmland had been cleared on the far side of their own island, and each race was entitled to 3.962 hectares for its own purposes, the particular allotment for each to be determined by a random drawing—after which, of course, they could swap back and forth as much as they liked. The weather satellites had detected no approaching storms large enough to require special precautions for at least the next few weeks. All this information, she pointed out, was in their datastores already, so if they would simply move to accept the reports as rendered? They did. Then she paused, while Mr. Brownbenttalon whispered urgently in her ear, and twisted around to look at Giyt. "Great misery I have," she declared, "for necessity disimproving your nuptial night participation here with irritating complaints, but Delta Pavonis guys raise problem of conflicting interests. You speak now, Delta Pavonis guy." The Delt took his fingers out of his mouth again and began to bark at Giyt. Giyt was willing to do his best to get along with these alien freaks, even the Slugs. But he couldn't honestly say that he cared much for the Delts. For one thing, he thought they were unnecessarily ugly, with pop eyes that stared out in all directions from the top corners of their inverted-triangle heads. (Did the first humans call them Delts because of the name of their star, or for the Greek-letter shape of their faces? Giyt didn't know.) The Delts also smelled, well, distinctly rancid, even in the thoroughly air-conditioned confines of the Hexagon. And they had the reputation of being a nuisance.

Which last trait the General Manager demonstrated for him now. The Delt translation program was little better than the Centaurian, but Giyt was able to figure out what the Delt was complaining about. It seemed that those steelhead trout Ex-Earth had stocked into Crystal Lake were eating the copepods the Delts had planted there, and no proper Delt could enjoy his dinner without a copepod garnish to give it taste. Something had to be done, the General Manager declared. Instantly. If not absolutely at that very instant, then certainly pretty damn soon, because all the Delts were suffering greatly from their deprivation.

The Delt was doing his best to make Giyt suffer, too, because he went on and on about it. Giyt took some comfort in the fact that the other commissioners were paying very little attention to the Delt's complaints. Mrs. Brownbenttalon was whispering cozily to her principal husband as he perched just above her nose, the Kalkaboo was scratching its shiny pelt absorbedly, the Petty-Prime was studying its readout of reports, and the Slug was simply being a slug. And then, when at last the Delt was finished—or came to a breathing space in his oration—Giyt quickly promised to look into the matter, Mrs. Brownbenttalon immediately declared the session adjourned, and the audience applauded again as they all got up to go.

"You were wonderful," Rina told him at the door. "See? I told you it would be a breeze."

"Yes, sure," he said, abstracted, "but you go on home and I'll get there when I can. Right now I need to talk to the Hagbarths about this copepod business."

Hoak Hagbarth wasn't in his office, which was also the Hagbarth home, but Olse was there. "You did fine," she told him at once. "Want some lemonade? I make it myself, bring in real lemons from Earth, Oh, the meeting? Sure, we both watched you on the screen, but Hoak's gone fishing. The copepods? My advice is, forget it. The damn Delts try that on every time there's a new mayor, but really, it's all Delt crap. There's no problem. We've got sonic barriers to keep the trout out of the copepod breeding places—you know, the wetland shallows in the lake's bays—and if they do eat a few of the cruddy little things every now and then, who cares? There's always plenty left over for the Delts. You sure you won't have some lemonade?"

But that last question came from the kitchen, where Olse Hagbarth was already pouring him some. "Yes, thank you," Giyt called to her, accepting fate as he looked around their place. It wasn't any fancier than his own house. They did have a grand piano in the living room, but the rest of their furniture was, if anything, cheaper and less attractive than the stuff they'd furnished the Giyts. Nor did the Hagbarths have nearly as nice a location, half a kilometer away from the lakeshore, with no real view out their windows—unless you counted the rather hideous shape of a towering Petty-Prime barracks next door. So whatever else the Hagbarths might do, no one could say they were pampering themselves at the expense of their charges.

When she came back with the lemonade Olse settled herself on the couch to face him, looking motherly and hospitable. "There's one thing," she said. "You called the planet Tupelo, but the eeties don't call it that. They call it the Peace Planet. They get bent if we don't."

"Oh, right," Giyt said, remembering. "I thought at the time I might've said something wrong—"

"Not wrong, for heaven's sake. That's what the ET-Huntsville people named it when they discovered it, and we can call it what we like, can't we? But the eeties get antsy if you don't go along with their name. As I guess you noticed. How's the lemonade?" When he had reassured her that it was fine, she added, "Listen, Hoak was thinking about something, if you're interested. Hoak thought you might want to take a look at some of the off-island facilities. You know, the power plant on Energy Island, that sort of thing? Or even the mines and things on the polar continent. He said he'd order you a chopper any time you want to go to the island. You'll have to take the suborbital to visit the mines, but you could go along when the next shift goes there. Or we could order a flight up there for you. Take Rina if she'd like to go; probably you'd both enjoy seeing more of Tupelo than this one island."

"Maybe so," he said, dazzled at the thought of having a high-speed suborbital transport ordered up for him any time he wanted to fly a few thousand kilometers away. "I'll talk to Rina."

"You do that, hon. And listen, Hoak and I just want to say that you're doing a wonderful job, fitting right in the way you're doing. But that's our way, isn't it? I mean the Earth humans here. We pitch right in, don't make waves, don't start trouble for anyone—"

"Like that Delt, you mean?"

"Including the Delts," she said, nodding vigorously as she stood up. "They're all eeties, so what do you expect? Anyway, come see us again, won't you? Maybe we'll have a little dinner party. Now I'd better get busy and try to catch up on our reports back to the home office."

On the way back home, Giyt thought about the trip to the polar continent. He had no idea what it would be like. Cold, yes. According to the pictures he'd seen it was almost as ice-covered as Earth's Antarctica, and just as bleak. When he told Rina about the invitation, sure enough, she was thrilled. She was standing in their front yard, talking over the fence to Lupe from next door, with a couple of Lupe's kids splashing in their wading pool. "I'd love it, Shammy!" Rina cried, and Lupe confirmed:

"You will. Matya worked up at the Pole a couple of seasons, before the kids began to come, and I went up sometimes for weekends. It's nice. Great accommodations, and they have a really good health club—in the Earth-human part, I mean. I guess the other people have all that stuff, too, but I never got around to seeing it. And speaking of the kids coming . . ."

She looked inquiringly at Rina, who shook her head. "I haven't had a chance to tell him yet. Come on inside and have a cup of tea, why don't you? You can watch the kids through the window."


What it was that Rina hadn't told him didn't get told just then, either, because Rina disappeared into the kitchen to make the tea for the guest, leaving Giyt to be the gracious host. Since Rina liked the woman, Giyt made an effort to be hospitable. Rina had told him all sorts of stories about the de Mirs. She had been charmed by the fact that they had invented a new surname to replace their old ones—so that, Rina said, they would all have the same name, and the kids would always be reminded of where they came from. So they had taken a word from each of their ancestral languages and made de Mir—from Earth.

Well, all right, that was somewhat charming, Giyt admitted to himself. But he had never been alone with either of the de Mirs before, and by the time Rina came back with the tea tray he had run out of subjects that did not touch on sexual orientation.

Lupe, too, seemed oddly embarrassed. She greeted Rina with relief. "And your stove's all right now? Shura used to have a lot of trouble with it, among other things, and Hoak Hagbarth just wouldn't get it fixed for her."

"It's fine. I think they put in a new one after your friend moved out."

But Giyt was not interested in a friend who had moved away; he wanted to know what it was that was hanging over his head. "There was something you wanted to tell me?" he prompted his wife.

Rina looked at her guest for an answer. "Well, it's just that I'm pregnant again," Lupe announced, flushed becomingly rosy. "We always wanted six, so we're almost there."

"Congratulations," Giyt said, since that was what she seemed to be expecting; thinking that for a pair of same-sex females they were certainly remarkably fecund, courtesy of Ex-Earth's sperm bank.

"Thanks, but what I wanted to say is that all of a sudden Matya is after me to quit being a volunteer fireman. Too much physical activity for a pregnant woman, she says. Which is nonsense. We don't have that many real fires, and even if we did . . . Well, that's between Matya and me, isn't it? Anyway, I'm going to quit, just to please her, and what I was thinking is that that means there'll be a vacancy in the fire company. So what I was wondering was whether you wanted to join."

He blinked at her. "Be a fireman?"

"Only if you want to," Lupe said quickly. "It doesn't take much time—hell, how often does anything burn around here? Not counting brush fires, I mean, and you only get those in the dry. In a couple of weeks we're having our annual firemen's fair. We're calling it 'The Taste of Tupelo' this year, and that'll take everybody in the company to man all the booths. But—"

"But you really ought to, Shammy," Rina coaxed. "As mayor. Set a good example. What do you say?"

Well what could he say? He said yes. And on their evening walk that night, did little talking, because he was wondering how it had happened that, without warning, the lifelong career computer thief and con man, Evesham Giyt, was suddenly turning into a model citizen.



Back | Next