Jody Lynn Nye
“Try this one, Lord Thomas,” Maskew Zamerling said, holding up a gorgeous cut crystal pitcher. Although there were liberated artificial intelligence units and employees in plenty, the unctuous CEO of Astra Acqua had insisted on serving me himself. It came as no surprise that he reserved the honor; visits from those of such a lofty rank as I enjoyed were rare and wondrous treasures meant to be savored. I relaxed in my oxblood-colored chair and held out the matching beaker to his ewer.
“My goodness, but these cups are heavy in the hand, aren’t they, Mr. Zamerling?” I remarked, as liquid as clear as the vessel from which it was decanted poured in a tinkling stream. “Beautiful, though. I think I’ll commission a set for myself when I get home.”
“I am glad you like the design. We find that quartz crystal prevents any extraneous flavors being imparted to the beverage, my lord.”
I turned the glass in my hand, curling my long fingers around it.
“And what differentiates this from the last sample?”
Zamerling smiled at me. He had a face made for simpering, with long, dark eyes, aquiline nostrils and full lips in a pasty, greenish complexion. I had a sudden, visceral need to divert his features from its expression, with the back of my hand, if necessary. I tamped down this sensation. Natural as it was, the moment’s satisfaction would derail my purpose in having made the trip to obtain an exclusive interview. He poured a half-cup for himself, and sat down again in the armchair across the narrow table from mine. Everything in the office was of the very highest quality and of unimpeachable taste. The chair itself had automatically elongated its back and foot rest to accommodate my lofty height without more than a whisper of sound.
“This comes from a source in the northernmost mountains in Shalim, Lord Thomas, far from here,” he said, raising the cut-crystal glass to admire the contents. “A rather high percentage of copper, a touch of sodium, and borax, which gives it that unmistakable sweetness on the palate which is the mark of the terroir of High Shalim. A connoisseur’s beverage, my lord.”
“Cheers, then,” I said, tipping my glass up, and rolled the liquid on my tongue. The water did taste a bit sweet, refreshing, with no metallic tang or perceptible aftertaste. “Very nice. I have never taken the time before to notice the differences between kinds of water. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes bad. Most of the time, I barely notice it unless I’m thirsty. H2O’s H2O. Adam’s Ale. You know.”
Zamerling looked pained. “We rather prefer the term ‘dihydrogen monoxide,’ my lord.”
“At your prices, a multisyllabic pronunciation does add cachet,” I remarked, taking another sip. I shot him a conspiratorial glance. “As well as the mysteries associated with your product. Is it true that you have discovered an entirely new aquifer previously unknown to geologists? That the purest and most delicious water flows from a source that no one else has ever discovered here on Bleke, right here in its newest settlement of Conoceil?”
“You read through our advertising copy, my lord?” Zamerling looked surprised. I draped my long arms across the high back of the seat and affected a careless air. Perhaps I had gone too far in showing interest. After all, the nobility, of which I was a fully paid-up voting member, owing to my ancestral connection to the Imperium house, scarcely if ever delved into anything more than shallowly. “That detail was in the eighth or ninth page.”
In fact, it had been on page ten, but I wouldn’t say so, for fear of revealing myself as having an academic or inquiring bent. I affected an artful smile.
“My secretary read it for me,” I said, waving a hand toward the slender, blue metal-clad mechanical who hovered near the office door. “OP-634g thought it was curious enough to bring to my attention. If this claim is so, it interests me deeply. I wish to be the first among my cousins to serve such a beverage in the Imperium Compound. Maybe to the Emperor himself. He is my cousin, you know.”
“I know,” Zamerling said. I was certain that he did. He had surely researched me and my illustrious background when I made the appointment to meet with him. I watched the circuits sparking behind his carefully bland countenance. We nobles were known for many things, but deep pockets, liberal spending, and adherence to the latest trends were high on the list. To become one of those trends was to open the way to a torrent of heretofore-unrealized wealth. I turned my chin this way and that so that he could remark upon my resemblance to the Emperor. Shojan XII and I shared tawny skin, a strong jaw, high cheekbones, broad forehead, a straight and well-built nose, and clear eyes, though the Emperor had the black hair most common to the Kinagos. I had inherited a sandier poll from the Loches, my mother’s family. “And what may we do to obtain your custom?” The "we" implied more of a royal pronoun than a reference to the company he represented.
“Well, I must have a tour of this aquifer,” I declared, crossing my expensively shod ankles upon the footrest. It shifted slightly to ease the pressure upon the lower of my extremities. The chair, and all the furnishings in the room must have cost the equivalent of my monthly income, which amounted to a considerable sum. We Kinagos have investments that go back over five millennia, and have been absurdly profitable for more than three. “Naturally, I wish to confirm that the statement is true. Such a personal examination would allow me to take in the kind of details that cannot be satisfied with a gazetteer’s description. It’s a superb success story, yours. A marvel, a treasure, a flowering in the desert, or so I have heard. I must see for myself.”
“A… a tour, my lord?” Zamerling asked, weakly. The eager-to-please attitude had taken a missile from unexpected quarters.
I sprang up. “Yes! And this very minute, too. The longer we delay, the more likely it is that one of my cousins will discover this fantastic resource of yours, and I will not be thwarted of the novelty. We import so many luxuries and curiosities from outside the Core Worlds, it will be a coup on my part to bring a hitherto undiscovered one from within.”
Zamerling stood up, but without any of the energy I displayed. His long eyes darted back and forth.
“But it’s dark, and dingy, and wet there.”
“I would expect a secret resource such as an aquifer to possess all of those qualities,” I said. “How else would it become an underground success in this day and age, so to speak?”
“The aquifer is rather dangerous, my lord. The sands of Bleke shift frequently, causing frequent landslips in our facility. You would have to descend several kilometers into the earth.”
I waved a hand. “Nothing that I haven’t tried before. My cousin Xan went through a spelunking phase, and dragged us all along with him into the nooks and crannies of Keinolt, the Imperium homeworld. I have been down to the very mantle, and stood upon it with these very feet! Though not these boots. It was rather hot there, I confess, hotter than this climate, though it was also a dry heat. I could have done with a pitcher or so of your water. No, I must see where this marvel of crystalline refreshment springs from, if you will forgive the pun. I cannot make a substantial order without being satisfied as to the veracity of your claim.”
Zamerling made one final essay.
“Er, what do you know of geology, Lord Thomas?”
“Very little,” I said, cheerfully, favoring him with a sample of my patented laugh, which combined a snort and a derisive hoot. It echoed off the walls of the sumptuous office suite and no doubt penetrated the eardrums of my listener. “It hasn’t been that interesting to me thus far. You’ll forgive my frankness, I hope?”
I smiled. The circuits continued to compute behind his greenish brow. His natural inclination to indulge one of my rank as well as native greed were at war as to how to display to me the object of my desire against the pressing need to conceal the possibly illicit source of his company’s success.
But greed won out, as I knew it must.
Zamerling drew his pocket secretary, the ever-present, slim, communications, recording and entertainment device that we all carried, from a silk-lined custom-tooled black pouch at his hip, and touched the screen. I noticed that his model was from the same high-end manufacturer as my own, albeit a level or two below in grade.
“Yes, sir?” a toneless high-pitched voice responded. It sounded to me like an LAI, but its lack of inflection could also be attributed to a very well trained secretary or aide.
“I need a car outside my suite in ten minutes,” Zamerling said. “Lord Thomas Kinago and I will be visiting Source Number Four.”
The voice evinced no surprise. My instincts told me that it was a human or Wichu employee, rather than an artificial intelligence.
“Number Four, sir? Will you require safety equipment?”
“Yes. Full body suits, lights and respirators. Alert staff on site that we are on the way.”
“Very well,” Zamerling said, putting the device back into its slipcase. He stood and gestured toward the door, which slid noiselessly into the wall. “After you, my lord.”
I strode out into the anteroom, my confident steps a counterpoint to his more hesitant paces. He guided me along a well-lit corridor with miniature waterfalls set into the black stone walls tinkling out an ever-changing melody, an extravagance on this dry hunk of rock that passed for a planet, but perhaps an allowable fillip. I passed a discreet sign indicating the comfort facilities. The sound of running water sounding out all day would without a doubt have a psychological effect on the employees.
At no time during our conversation had I brought up the water shortages that had been plaguing the newly settled city of Conoceil for more than a year. No doubt Zamerling assumed that pedestrian a situation would be beneath the notice of a lofty personage such as myself, and under normal circumstances, he would be right. My cousins and I seldom paid heed to any catastrophe or disaster that did not immediately impact our lives. Wealth and position shielded us from the ordinary citizen of the Imperium, and, to be frank, also shielded the ordinary citizen from our playful and often careless ways.
However, the matter had been brought to the Emperor’s attention as a question of some urgency. Conoceil, the nearby city on Bleke, the second habitable planet circling Leo’s Star, had been founded some years past when a massive and potable underground aquifer was found in the center of a vast desert continent. A town had grown up around it, and began to flourish. The income of Conoceil proper derived mainly from tourism and the cultivation of tropical plants and fruits imported from other Imperium worlds. I had served numerous Conoceillian-grown succulents on my own table. They were delicious and beautiful, a feast for the eyes as well as the tongue. Conoceil also boasted root plants that had their own charm and flavor. According to geologists, the planet had once been as lush as the Imperium homeworld of Keinolt, but over hundreds of millions of years of steadily warming climate, the lifeforms had retreated underground, where they had been nourished by the ambient heat and the numerous aquifers spotted about the planet under its sandy blanket.
Yet recently, what had seemed to be an endless underground freshwater sea had begun unaccountably to dry up, leaving the groves and orchards scrambling to make up the shortfall of water from ever lower reservoirs. To the despair of the growers, the local wells, reliable for centuries, had also begun running dry. Examination had left geologists none the wiser as to the drought’s cause. The nearest potable well was over fifty kilometers distant.
At the same time, Acqua Astra, also a major employer in the region, continued to ship immense quantities of its delicious and pure-tasting water to other planets circling Leo’s Star, not to mention Keinolt and the rest of the Core Worlds. Luxury hotels in many a sector had those distinctive ochre-yellow bottles of Acqua Astra on their hospitality bars. (In theory, those were refillable and recyclable, but they tended to be taken home by tourists as desirable souvenirs. Even I had a few scattered among my travel memorabilia.)
When such a strategic resource as water itself begins to run short, it causes hardship, finger pointing and other outbursts in the population centers. Accusations against the corporation had arisen in the popular press op-ed sections on the Infogrid, rising most lately into the realm of the court system. Acqua Astra had argued to the government of Bleke that it drew water from the same sources that it claimed from time immemorial, which was to say around twenty or so years, and had not outstretched the boundaries of those deeded properties. After a search by several groups of experts, no contradiction of their claim could be determined.
But if they were not to blame for the drought, then it had to have another cause, and none could be located. Unrest was rising in the towns and communities, reaching all the way up to the planetary government, who in turn demanded help from the Emperor in finding what had happened to the rest of Conoceil’s water. Why a corporation should have no trouble filling its orders when small growers and individuals seemed to be dying of thirst was a knotty problem that intrigued the mind and stimulated the speculative faculties. Yet another concern piled on top of those already amassed: Acqua Astra was a popular growth stock on the Imperium Stock Exchange. Managers of many a portfolio, including those of my cousins and myself, counted it as a must-buy. These experts needed to know if something untoward was occurring so they could move their clientele out of it before public embarrassment reduced the value of the company to zero. Hence, the presence of myself and my crew.
I looked about the brilliant blue sky as I stepped out onto the platform protruding from the ninetieth floor of the Acqua Astra office tower. The long, sleek air limousine, Clear Spirit, hovered against the edge, with a flexible ramp bridging the gap between the building and the hatch. Zamerling ushered me hastily forward. The crew of my ship, the Rodrigo, lurked somewhere about, monitoring a signal being broadcast from a capsule that I had swallowed before entering the building. My aide-de-camp, Parsons, had assured me that it was shielded from discovery, at least until peristalsis revealed it in some hours’ time. I boarded the craft. OP-634g trundled serenely after me.
A very slim and handsome young person in a sea-blue jumpsuit that matched the company logo guided me to one of the deeply padded white seats and held onto the safety harness until I was seated. The captain, a human woman of middle years, and her co-pilot, a Croctoid with yellow-green scales, waved a jaunty greeting from the open cockpit. Zamerling introduced them as Captain Sheerling and First Officer Nidden. The Clear Spirit hummed as it pulled in its ramp and shot off into the sky.
“May I offer you something to drink, Lord Thomas?” the attendant inquired.
“Try the water,” Zamerling said, encouragingly, from the seat across the aisle. “The jet is equipped with a full range of our most exotic vintages.”
I lounged back and enjoyed a flight of fifteen or so excellent waters, with Zamerling exhorting me to try them in combination, chilled with spherical orbs of clear glass or at ambient temperature, according to its mineral content.
“This one,” I said, holding one of the twenty milliliter glasses aloft, “is the most pure water I have ever tasted. It is brilliantly clean-tasting and fresh-smelling. A marvel of nature!”
Zamerling creased his face into that irritatingly smug expression. “That is exactly where you are wrong, my lord. This particular beverage has had a patented mix of minerals added. That clean taste that you detect comes from calcium carbonate. Limestone tells the human tongue that the water is pure. A touch of sodium bicarbonate adds a little roughness and alkalinity and potassium and magnesium a sensation of well-being. I could list the other trace elements, but it’s a trade secret. You understand. You’ve never had completely pure water.”
I was baffled and delighted by the notion. “You mean that nothing doesn’t taste like nothing? What is pure water like, then?”
“Surprisingly, completely pure dihydrogen monoxide is very acid,” Zamerling said. “It’s harmful to most organisms of Terran origin. It doesn’t appear in nature, only in laboratories.”
“How curious,” I said. I leaned back to peer out of the window of the air car. I could not see behind or before us, only out to the side. The lateral view, however, was most instructive.
Upon my arrival from the east side of the compound, I had been met by the rising vista of lush hills covered in greenery, dotted with flowers of astonishingly vivid hues. As we lifted off from the Acqua Astra facility, I could see beyond the low peaks that sheltered the tropical range. Now I discovered that like most of my cousins posing for images for their Infogrid files, the island, too, displayed only its most fetching side. On the other side, Conoceil was anything but lush. Plant life there was in plenty, in clusters alongside vast plantations cupped in the valley served by the deep aquifer, but none of them evinced the brilliant greens of the land around the water bottling plant. In fact, the island was yellowing in a distressing fashion, until it nearly matched the dun color of the desert beyond. The lack of irrigation had become acute.
“How often do you see your cousin?” Zamerling asked, interrupting my perusal. He wore that expression of hero worship that so naturally accompanied thoughts of the Emperor. I was pleased that for whatever other perfidy I suspected him, Zamerling appeared to be a loyal subject of the Imperium.
“Every day or two,” I said, airily. “My family’s suites are across a garden from the boxwood maze where he likes to walk in the afternoons. I pass the time of day with him casually once in a while, as well as on official occasions. You will find this amusing,” I added, and launched into a recounting of the latest state dinner, held on behalf of a visiting Wichu dignitary. I used the term “dignitary” under advisement, for the white-furred beings comported themselves in a far more casual manner than our leadership. Which, for once, made for an entertaining evening. State events were a form of torture sanctioned by time and custom, to make visitors and hosts equally uncomfortable, serving food that would not appear on any table except in the most extreme circumstances, and featuring entertainment that could only by a stretch of the imagination be thought entertaining. I have liked every Wichu I’d ever met. They made a refreshing change from the citizens of the Imperium.
As I assumed, Zamerling listened with rapt attention. A subtle movement of his pudgy fingers toward his pocket secretary told me that he was recording my discourse for future reference. I didn’t mind. My comments upon the feast had already been entered in great detail in my file on the Infogrid, with many a withering reply from my cousins and other palace insiders. The Emperor himself had not replied. He never did, but then, I never wrote anything that would overtly or covertly insult him. His behavior was beyond reproach, which in my opinion would be a tedious way to have to live, therefore I and my cousins vowed never to add to that burden. We, too, were loyal.
My loyalty took an additional form, one known only to a handful-and-a-half of people. Imperium Security had recruited me during my mandatory service, and had employed me since that time in various missions suited to my profile and temperament. Its mysterious head, Mr. Frank, never sent me into a situation alone, though. Apart from OP-634g, whose initials were a shortening of his title of Operative, my personal scout ship was not far away.
It took no especial concentration to narrate a tale that I had already committed to a public file. I glanced out of the window to my right in hopes of spotting one or more of my escorts. The Rodrigo was too large to pass unnoticed in a civilian setting, but Lieutenants Plet and Oskelev, paramount among pilots, were tracking me closely in small shuttles. I experienced a sensation of safety comparable to being held in the bosom of one’s mother. In my case, this was more apropos than most: my mother was the First Space Lord, and therefore commander of such things as shuttlecraft.
I have been praised by my family as a compelling storyteller. When I came to the moment in which the Emperor had to embrace his fellow head of state and came away with a chest full of white fur, Zamerling leaned back in his chair to laugh. Judging the timing, I sipped from the flight of small beakers placed before me. I blanched as the fetid, sulfurous odor from the sample at the farthest right touched my nose, and began to cough.
“Ah, yes, the Hochin spring water,” Zamerling said. “An acquired taste, I’m afraid.”
“I’ve had worse,” I admitted, setting it down untouched. If it tasted anything close to the way it smelled, it would sour my stomach for hours. “But,” I added, after a moment’s consideration, “I would like to order a half case for my cousin Xan. I’m sure that he will acquire it, if only because he can’t admit to being the butt of a joke. I can’t wait to see the look on his face!”
“Of course, my lord,” Zamerling said, now openly activating his pocket secretary. He showed no offense whatsoever at my indication that his product would be used for low-level prank upon a fellow being. A small order might be the precursor to a larger and more lucrative order, always with the hope that the Emperor might sample the merchandise and like it. “It shall be waiting for you upon our return to the office. In the meanwhile, try the next one. It is a sample of our latest and most popular beverage, Ad Astra.”
I checked to see if he was attempting to play his own joke upon me, but the sincere expression with which he favored me convinced me otherwise. I tipped the glass against my lips, and was delighted by the flavor.
“This is excellent!” I said, happily, holding my glass up for a refill. The attendant bustled forward with the pitcher. “Marvelous. This has notes of fruit and spice like a very delicate wine. I can understand why it is so popular. My cousins will find it irresistible. Make a note, OP. Quite good.”
“As you wish, Lord Thomas,” the LAI replied. The two green lights on his upper assembly that I thought of as eyes flashed slightly.
I glanced again at the wilting, ochre landscape, and a distant glint of metal caught my eye. Right on schedule, I thought with pleasure. Brava, Oskelev. I appreciated the reassurance that my crew had my back.
“Incoming!” First Officer Nidden bellowed suddenly. A missile-proof shield shot between the pilots’ compartment and our seating area, and smooth shutters slid from the walls to cover the windows. His voice continued over the speakers. “Take crash positions, please!”
Bad luck, I thought. They had detected my escort. I had better disavow any connection to the distant shuttle.
Then the bulkhead of the limousine shook, hard, flinging me back against my crash padding. Straps tightened about my body and yanked me closer to the heavy padding. I gawked at the starboard bulkhead in disbelief. We’d been hit! Why would Oskelev shoot at us?
“Take evasive maneuvers,” Zamerling ordered, slamming his palm down on the arm of his crash couch. “Are the security jets on their way?”
“Aye, sir,” Captain Sheerling said. “An escort plus two defense flyers.” The limousine took a hard spiraling turn to the right and dropped another thousand meters or so. “Here they come. Please stay strapped in.”
“I’m so terribly sorry,” I said, shocked. “I assure you, I have not brought any hostiles to this planet with me.”
“It’s not you, my lord.” The CEO’s face set into a grim expression. “We have had some difficulties with the local population. They see us as the source of their problems, and they have taken to retaliating against our vehicles.”
“And what problems could possibly provoke violence of this level?” I asked, horrified, as another solid round struck the side of the limousine. The air car shuddered and dropped several tens of meters.
“Shortages,” Zamerling said, tersely. “Captain Sheerling, back to the tower, please. Lord Thomas must not be placed in any danger.”
Despite the danger, I hated to return to Taino without having completed my assignment. What would my mother say? I put out my lower lip.
“But, what about my tour?” I asked. “Dear Mr. Zamerling, you won’t let me come all this way without seeing the very object I crave, would you? I need to see the source!”
I could tell that Zamerling was torn. He put on a momentary exhibition of dithering that would have done credit to an interstellar competition. Then, he leaned over the armrest microphone.
“Sheerling, take us out over the dunes. We’ll go in through the loading dock.”
“This way, my lord,” Zamerling said, courteously making way for me.
I strode behind the CEO as we passed through chamber after chamber lined with vats all gurgling their precious liquid into myriad clear pipes and tubing that fed conveyor belts of ochre bottles, large, small, and minute. Beings of all sentient species, clad in the same bright-blue hazmat costumes as the ones we wore, minded the equipment, taking notes on viewpads or making adjustments to the controls. Occasionally, one of them would glance toward our small party, then turn back to work. They treated Ad Astra as though it was as much gold as the color of its bottles.
Every surface was shimmeringly clean. We had each had to pass through biometric identification and a sanitizing fog and waded or, in OP-634g’s case, rolled through a mat infused with disinfectant before entering the purification plant. I was keenly aware of two separate forces overseeing my tour. One was, unsurprisingly, security personnel. The other was a cleaning squad who wiped away our footprints as we passed.
More blue-suited employees oversaw even larger tanks, checking levels and taking samples from valves. Those were conveyed next door to a vast laboratory, all white enamel and shining metal, where scientists frowned thoughtfully at the contents of beakers.
“We send out four shipments a day,” Zamerling said, via my in-hood audio feed. “We have received orders from as far away as the Uctu Autocracy. The Lady Visoltia has acquired a taste for the mineral compound in Ad Astra. Acqua Astra is doing its part to encourage trade between our two peoples.”
“And quite rightly, too,” I said. Visoltia and I had formed a fond friendship on my recent visit to the Uctu homeworld. “And what is that mineral compound? You were most forthcoming on some of your other products.”
“I… well, I really must not say,” Zamerling replied, with a coy expression behind his face mask. “Trade secrets, you know. Now, come this way. You will find this most interesting!”
And to an extent, I did. We followed the line of moving belts to the shipping area, in which the precious bottles were packed in crates of nine, padded and sealed with the gold double-A logo. The white-walled fulfillment center lay adjacent to the loading dock. It buzzed with the latest in computer design.
“I cannot connect to any of your LAI systems,” OP-634g said, with just the right self-deprecating tone. Instead of a hazmat suit, the sanitation forces had placed a clear hood over him that descended all the way to the ground, like a large plastic bag. “May I have the access codes, please, Mr. Zamerling?”
“That won’t be allowed,” Zamerling said, firmly. I noted that he was not as courteous to LAIs as to organic visitors. That put a demerit on his record in my book. “Our systems are closed to protect proprietary information from our rivals.”
“But what about the source?” I asked. “This is all what one would call the back end of the operation. I want to see the raw material. The diamond in the rough.”
“Oh, yes! Come this way!” The CEO set off along a broad yellow stripe on the floor. He passed by a large red door. To one side was an identification pad and a broad lens for scanning biometrics. Beyond it, I could hear heavy thrumming sounds. I caught his arm and turned him toward it.
“What is in there?” I asked. Zamerling dithered, tapping his gloved fingertips together.
“Oh, that? It’s just the pumping station. A storage sub-basement. Kilometers down. Dirty. Greasy. Not interesting. But, come with me. Let us have a drink and talk about your order, my lord!”
He set out again. How curious that a secured door was necessary to protect water.
I turned to the pad. An AI designation was noted on the bottom of the oval plate.
“Hello, DG-403. May I enter?”
“I’m very sorry… Lord Thomas Kinago… you are not authorized.”
“Thank you,” I said, and turned away.
“Good day, sir or madam.” Hmm, not a top of the line AI, then.
I nodded to OP-634g, who halted for just a moment, then rolled along beside me in Zamerling’s wake.
No one else would have noticed the thin silver stream of nanites he had dispensed seep through the crack between the red door and its frame.
“Well, this has all been most interesting,” I said, waving away Zamerling’s attempt to pour me another libation of Ad Astra. We sat at a polished stone table in a marble, hexagonal atrium with a fountain shooting no doubt thousands of credits of precious water into the air. “No, no, thank you. I have already had to pay one visit to your most elegant facilities.”
Zamerling fixed upon me his oiliest smile yet.
“I am so very pleased that you enjoy our product,” he said.
OP-634g suddenly came to attention and rolled toward me. I shot a casual glance upward. His upper section bent at a ninety-degree angle so his speaker was adjacent to my ear. Zamerling looked at me with deep curiosity, but I merely offered him a noncommittal smile as I rose.
“I must go,” I said. “Thank you so very much for your hospitality. If your shuttle will convey me safely back to the town, I would be deeply appreciative.”
“Of course, my lord. When may I call upon you to inquire about finalizing your order?” he asked.
“At my hotel,” I said. “I am staying at Bleke House, of course. You will find me in after ten in the morning.”
Zamerling remained behind, giving me and my attendant transport in a private vehicle that would not excite the ire of the neighbors, but neither of us spoke until we reached the safety of my penthouse hotel suite, at which point we received company.
Seated most unobtrusively in the darkest corner of the bright sitting room was a figure who appeared to be made of shadow itself. After the brilliance of the day, it was a relief to see.
“Parsons!” I exclaimed happily, as that dignitary rose to his feet. My aide-de-camp, a commander in the Space Navy as well as a fellow confidant of Mr. Frank, and my mentor, stood a few centimeters taller than my lofty height, with dark eyes and black hair that seemed self-effacing in spite of its gloss.
“My lord,” he said. “I take it that Mr. Zamerling was not forthcoming with the information that we seek?”
“Not at all,” I said, throwing myself into the nearest easy chair and flinging a leg over one padded arm. “I’d have an easier time asking my cousin Jil what she weighs. Which, I confess, I only do to provoke her. But OP-634g has some information that he is just dying to impart.”
Parsons showed no more expression than the LAI as he turned to the operative.
“Examination of the locked area by the nanites reveal that the protected space extends some six hundred meters below the plant. Pumps are present, but only going upward to the purification and bottling facility. It would seem that Acqua Astra’s claims are as they have stated. There are no mechanisms present to raise water from a source of any kind. It is very still and quiet in the lower chambers.”
“They are certainly siphoning water from the other aquifer,” Parsons mused. A tiny muscle twitched in that epicene brow, showing him to be deep in thought. “Nothing that produces as much water as Acqua Astra distributes could be passive.”
“I am prepared to return this evening to investigate,” I said.
Parsons gave me a quelling look. “Ensign Nesbitt is prepared to infiltrate the plant within the hour.”
“No, I want to do it,” I said, knowing that I sounded a little peevish. “I dislike it when someone promises me a full tour and fails to deliver. I fancy I am as observant as he. Moreover, I know where all the biometric facilities are. I’m a known quantity. He will surely set off the alarm system. I only need OP-634g to guide me into the depths of the plant.”
“There is no means to take you to the lower levels,” OP-634g said. “I can go.”
“How will you get there?” I asked, a little stung. “Any way you can pass, I can, too.”
“It would be too uncomfortable for you, sir. Cold. Cramped.”
“Ha!” I snorted. “You have never known uncomfortable, cold and cramped until you have sat in a malfunctioning hot tub with my cousin Erita and her horde of cronies. Is there air?”
“There is, sir.”
“Then I will go. Well, Parsons?”
Parsons knew when to thwart me and when it would be best to let me have my way.
“Very well,” he said, regarding me with a bare hint of resignation. “The crew will be on hand to rescue you if needed.”
A desert night sky displayed so many stars with such clarity that I found it contradictory that darkness should lie so thick upon the ground. My LAI escort rolled with near silence over the sands. I trudged much more slowly behind.
OP-634g engaged a panel that seemed to be drilled into a solid slab of stone and passed a web of green light across it.
“Welcome, Mr. Zamerling,” the panel said. A vast boulder shifted back and out of our way, opening a Stygian shaft before us. The LAI rolled inside. I had only a single point of green light to guide me. We had entered by the loading dock. No shipments left during the night, possibly to keep the insurgent locals of the nearby town from attacking in darkness.
Instead of essaying the red door, OP-634g led me through a low and narrow passage to a utilitarian hatch of stainless steel. Beyond it was a dumbwaiter system, a continuous belt of narrow platforms designed to carry AIs and LAIs down into the depths. OP-634g shone his green spotlight inside.
“Are you certain, sir?”
“That’s not cramped,” I said, evincing scorn. “I’ve played Sardine in smaller locations with a dozen of my closest relatives stuffed in beside me.” I swung into the next compartment that passed and was conveyed downward into the gloom. I crouched upon the narrow metal shelf. “So this is how the other half lives, eh?”
“The other 75%, sir,” the LAI said. “Mechanicals outnumber sentient organics more than three to one in the Imperium.”
“Pays to be nice to you, then, doesn’t it?” I whispered. “I have lots of friends who are LAIs. Old pals, correspondents, and so on. I trust I won’t be first up against the wall when the revolution comes, eh?”
“Yes, sir. Not first.”
I wanted to laugh, but first, my hoot of appreciation would probably be heard a thousand meters away, and second, I wasn’t certain that he was making a joke. An LAI in the Imperium Security service might or might not be programmed with a sense of humor.
A bar of red light indicated the bottom of the shaft. I made ready and sprang out onto the floor on feet as silent as I could make them. While I regained my equilibrium, OP-634g emerged beside me. My eyes had become as accustomed to near darkness as they were going to be. I saw shadows that I believed to be walls and corridors ahead of us.
“Anyone down here with us?”
“I see three infrared signatures of human beings,” OP-634g said. “Security guards. Warmth issuing from the pumping mechanisms fed from solar-panel-charged batteries. Otherwise, cold temperatures coinciding with ambient underground.”
“Good. Now, let’s see those pumps. Perhaps we can get an idea of the source from the pipes.”
OP-634g flashed on the floor an image of the layout of the pump level that he had gleaned from the nanites and laid out our path. Two rights, a left, a long corridor, then another right. He shut off the map, leaving only the single green dot to guide us or, rather, me.
Unlike the rest of Bleke, the subterranean chamber was cool with a pleasant dampness in the air. As we wended our winding way, the scent of fresh, clean stone, like the water that I had thought was pure, grew steadily stronger. The nearly deafening thrumming vibrated the floor under my feet. The pumps had to be fairly close by.
Suddenly, an alarm went off overhead.
“Alert! Alert!” a loud voice boomed in the midst of blaring sirens. “Organic presence detected in secure area. Investigate! Investigate!”
“Curses,” I hissed. “Hide me!”
I held onto the comforting frame of the LAI. He pulled me into a chamber and pressed me up against an inner wall. I heard a hiss, followed by a cooling spray. The faint security lights in the corner showed me that I was in a storeroom for pump parts and hoses. In contradiction to the CEO’s statement, the chamber hundreds of meters below the surface was not dingy or dirty at all. One could have dined off the smooth stone floor. I huddled in a narrow niche behind the door. OP-634g stood behind me, disguising my presence.
Voices belonging to two humans approached on the other side of the wall. I squatted lower in my hiding place.
Steps entered the room. I listened to them shuffle on the smooth floor for what felt like eons.
“No one’s here,” a resonant female voice said at last. “He must have gone to its chamber!”
“Right,” said a deep male voice with a distinctive Kazuran accent. “We’d better make sure it’s all right.”
I used Sang-Li fingerspelling to communicate with OP-634g. The guards were on their way to our objective! We would follow at a respectful distance. OP-634g flashed his eye-lights in agreement, then let them fade to blackness.
We counted to thirty, then tiptoed out to follow.
Very soft desert boots and a great deal of practice with my martial arts instructor on how to move silently allowed me to pursue our guides without detection. After passing along a lengthy corridor and turning right, the hazmat-suited guards passed through a broad doorway.
I had no idea what to expect it to be, but my wildest imaginings would not have created the scene that awaited me in the immense chamber. Rippling light played upon the walls, like sunlight on a lake. Millions of tiny, crystalline filaments snaked across the floor and into myriad cracks in the wall to my right. They shimmered with their own crepuscular light. They seemed to move under my feet like a living carpet, which was in fact what they were.
The object from which those filaments arose was a beast, a creature, a being, larger than any I had ever seen in my life. It must have measured a kilometer wide by two long, stretched out in a chamber that barely fit it top to bottom. Its rounded sides glimmered with blue-white and pearlescent peach lights. A behemoth like that should have been horrifying, but instead I found it beautiful, a delicate creamy, gelatinous oblate spheroid, the blancmange that no chef had ever dreamed of.
I trod carefully around the being, watching its sides pulse as its myriad tiny straws sipped from the strata of the deep underground. At the far left, I heard gentle splashing, softer than the sound of a fountain. I made my way around to see what was making the noise.
If on the far right was the intake, this was the outflow. From the body of the massive, pulsing hulk, half a dozen large tubules rained clear, perfect water into a vast, bottomless reservoir. And, there at the edge of the cavern was where the pumps of the Acqua Astra dangled their intake pipes. The exclusive “dihydrogen monoxide” product in which Zamerling took so much pride was the excreted waste material from a massive underground native creature. No wonder the source was a trade secret!
“Well, I will be a Pthohannixian candle-snuffer,” I said, and burst out into uncontrollable laughter. My knees threatened to give out under me as my hoots and cries echoed off the ceiling.
“Lord Thomas, quiet!” OP-634g warned me, but all in vain.
At that moment, hands grabbed my arms and dragged me backwards. I fought against the pair of guards, attempting to show them my face, but they put me into an armlock and dragged me toward a red door, the counterpart to the lift on the ground floor.
“You really should untie me,” I said. I was sealed into a chair in Zamerling’s plush office. A length of clear plastic strapping surrounded my chest and wrapped my arms tightly. OP-634g was bound full-length in swathes of the stuff. Only the lights of his eyes told me that they had not deactivated him. “You don’t really want to hurt me.”
I knew they did not. One quality of being a noble of the Imperium meant that no ordinary human would wish to do me harm. Nor did his guards. Once they had seen me, they realized that they had made a terrible mistake. But the longer we sat facing one another, the more nervous they became. They fidgeted with their stun weapons, clearly wishing to be anywhere but there. I could tell that Zamerling was of two minds.
“We can’t let him go,” Zamerling said to the guards. He tapped at his lower lip with nervous fingers. “It would mean bankruptcy.”
“What is that creature?” I asked. “I’ve never seen any living being that large in all my life. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. I don’t suppose it has a name for itself, or not one we can understand. What do you call it? A mega-micturator? A tinkle-titan? Your number one resource?”
“Aquavore!” Zamerling exclaimed suddenly. “We call it an aquavore.”
“It doesn’t really eat water, though,” I said.
“It absorbs minerals. The water that, er, passes through it is purified.”
“But you told me perfectly pure water is dangerous,” I pointed out.
“The aquavore’s system excretes a mixture of minerals that keep the pH balanced. That combination has proved to be… palatable to our customers’ tastes.” Zamerling’s greenish complexion turned ruddy with embarrassment. “My lord, you put us in a terrible position.”
“I don’t see it that way at all,” I said, rustling my bonds. “You’ve put me in a terrible position, sealing me in plastic like my great aunt’s sofa. Sooner or later, you will have to let us go. I am sure that we can come to some kind of… understanding.”
“A bribe?” Zamerling asked, goggling at me in shock.
“Certainly not,” I said, drawing myself up in outraged pride, or as much as I could under the circumstances. “I would demean neither one of us with such an offer. I mean to find a solution to your dilemma. Surely you have not fallen into a situation from which you cannot be extricated. I’m rather good at unknotting problems. Try me.”
“I can’t,” the CEO all but wailed. The guards shifted, worrying me that one of them might react rashly.
I glanced at the burl-wood chronometer that sat on Zamerling’s desk. If I did not inform Parsons soon as to my whereabouts, he and the others would activate the locator in my lower gastrointestinal tract and come looking for me, leading to further grave misunderstandings, and possibly resulting in one or more of us suffering life-threatening injuries. I did not see this man as the enemy.
“Come, come, Mr. Zamerling. I want to help. Consider me another natural resource. Where did the aquavore come from? Did you import it? Is that why you don’t want it revealed? And what does this have to do with the water being pulled out of Conoceil’s reservoir?”
“Aquavores are native to Bleke. They’re all over this planet.”
I raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“But biologists don’t know about them. How is that possible?”
“They do, but the only specimens that they see are small, up to a few centimeters in diameter.”
My eyes widened. “Then your friend downstairs must be the great-great-grandmother of them all.”
Zamerling gave me a superior smile. “No, there are more. My scientists have discovered eight others of this size. They’ve been paid well not to publish about them. The aquavores adapted over hundreds of millions of years to create an underground ecology.” Now that I’d gotten him going, the CEO was eager to explain. “The aquifers discovered by our ancestors left geologists mystified, because they’re much larger than the pockets of stone would have suggested. But the aquavores purify the water so much by consuming the impurities that they leave none of their own organics behind, only a few minerals. Then, we believe, they move along, leaving no trace, and create another aquifer fifty or a hundred kilometers away from their last haven. The nine giants are enormous, kilometers in size, but they’re flat, because they are formed of billions of clear capillaries, by which they feed on water supplies left over from when this planet was wet. They create their own cracks to live in, by moving between strata like glaciers, until they find a place with the right kind of resources, and begin another aquifer. They’re amazing creatures.”
“But you or, rather, Great-Grandmother is robbing the town of the water it needs to thrive. You must admit that. Why don’t you share? There is surely enough clean water for all foreseeable needs, including Ad Astra.”
“Not for long,” Zamerling said, and the haunted look reasserted itself on his face. “The town is growing faster than we anticipated. They pull so much water out of the wells that the aquavore began to shift. When one has used up the useful organics and minerals and drained all the water in an area, it moves on. My scientists tell me that the minerals and trace organic elements that the aquavores crave are nearly depleted in these strata. When this one does, then it will ruin Acqua Astra. I can’t even explain to our vendors, let alone our shareholders, what has happened if we lose our source. We’re walking a tightrope, Lord Thomas!” He wrung his hands.
The desperate look on his face touched me, but the funny side of the situation took precedence. My mouth quivered. I did my best to hold onto my hilarity, but it burst out of me in a wheezing, whooping, hee-haw of a laugh. The inspiration made my mood soar sky high.
“But, my good man, the problem solves itself!”
Zamerling’s long eyes narrowed dangerously. I had probably pushed him as far as I dared.
“Do not make fun of me, Lord Thomas. You are in a precarious position.”
I felt a preternatural calm. If I seemed to be teetering, it was only his perception.
“Not at all, Mr. Zamerling. Look at it this way.” I tried to turn up my palms, but the pinioning of my arms made that impossible. I fixed him with my most sincere gaze. “You have a, well, trade secret that creates a product that has gained you a following, with more orders than you can easily fulfill. The town that has grown up side by side with Acqua Astra is being starved for clean drinking water and irrigation, which you could supply. But only if you understand your neighbors to be the renewable resource that they really are. You have not taken advantage of a closed system.”
All the blustering wind leaked noisily out of Zamerling at once.
“Well, yes,” I said. “The town of Conoceil drinks water, yes. They need it to farm with, of course. But what do they produce?” I waited for a moment, but none of my audience chimed in. “Sewage! And what is it your aquavore needs, lest it move on and destroy your infrastructure?”
Zamerling looked fearful, until my words sank in, and enlightenment dawned.
“Useful minerals,” he said.
“Exactly! The dearth of water is not insurmountable. Why have you never considered simply replacing the water itself? You’ve just told me there are other aquifers of a similar size a mere fifty kilometers distant. Pipe it in for the city and the growers. They will use it and flavor it sufficiently for the aquavore’s use. And round and round it will all go.”
The forefinger tapped again at his lower lip. “But, Lord Thomas, we’re a luxury brand! You have learned our ‘trade secret.’ What guarantee do I have that you will not reveal it and ruin our reputation? You must admit that the truth is a business-ending embarrassment, if it got out that our product was the end result of a… natural process?”
“Well,” I said, toying with the armrest with my fingertips, almost the only part of my extremities that were free to move, “I might be satisfied with a compromise.”
The long eyes narrowed again. He tilted his head.
“Well, you will have to share with Conoceil,” I said. “Beginning at once. The town has the right to flourish and grow. If there are large aquifers all over the planet, you can run pipes out under the sand and replenish the water table here from them, then ensure that the wastewater runs into your cellar here. With the, er, input from thousands of people producing organic waste by the ton, Great-Grandmother will be so happy that she’ll never move from downstairs. It will form a healthy cycle, and the ‘trade secret’ need never surface. In any way.” I winked at them.
Finally, after a few nerve-wracking moments, when I feared I was at last going to have to call for help, they winked back.
“This solution is surprisingly savvy for one of your rank,” Zamerling said, nodding in approval. “And a few kilometers of pipe are the price for your complicity?”
“That and a few hundred cases of Ad Astra,” I said. “Of course.”
Zamerling and I exchanged conspiratorial smiles.
“Of course, my lord! Shall we drink to it?”
“I thought you would never ask.”
The guards leaped forward to cut me loose.
I returned to Bleke House with only moments to spare before the tracker was due to reappear. When I returned to the sitting room, Parsons shimmered in as only he could.
“I am pleased to see you well, my lord,” he said. “All was successful?”
“Indeed it was, and more fascinating a situation than I could ever have imagined.” With the help of OP-634g providing images and an audio transcript, I narrated our sally into the bowels of Acqua Astra, the marvel of the giant aquavore, and the outcome of the negotiations with Mr. Zamerling. Parsons allowed one corner of his otherwise expressionless mouth to rise in what I saw as gushing approval for my perspicacity and wisdom.
“Well done, my lord. Mr. Frank and the Emperor will be pleased.” He surveyed the skid of gold-stamped cases. “And those?”
“A souvenir,” I said, with a grin. “Alas, but I have a wonderful story to tell that can never be filed on the Infogrid! At least, though, I’ve had a chance to take the waters.”
Copyright © 2015 Jody Lynn Nye
Jody Lynn Nye has published over forty-five books and more than one hundred forty short stories, including books in the New York Times best-selling Myth Adventure series written with Robert Asprin. She also collaborated with Anne McCaffrey on four science fiction novels, The Death of Sleep, Crisis On Doona, Treaty At Doona and The Ship Who Won, and wrote a solo sequel to The Ship Who Won entitled The Ship Errant. Her latest novels are The Lord Thomas Kinago series entries View from the Imperium, Fortunes of the Imperium, and Rhythm of the Imperium, and Wishing on a Star from Arc Manor Press.