tagNovels and NovellasBattle for the Known Unknown Ch. 16

Battle for the Known Unknown Ch. 16

bybradley_stoke©

Chapter Sixteen
Ulysses - 3751 C.E.


It only when the space ship Ulysses had travelled far enough from the Schmidt Republic that it appeared as nothing more than a tiny dot in the distance that Paul and Beatrice received a visit from Lieutenant Korolyov. He introduced himself as the Interplanetary Union military officer whose assignment was to ensure that the couple would arrive safely on Earth. He was a Saturnian, as were most Interplanetary Union officers in this part of the Solar System, and in common with most Saturnians his head was shaved and he showed far less interest in Beatrice's charms than those few possessed by Paul.

"You're probably aware that our brief sojourn at Schmidt was a security nightmare," the lieutenant remarked as he sat down on the plush armchair in Paul's luxury apartment. "You appear to have been the target of every terrorist and criminal in the Solar System, so we've radically upgraded your level of security."

"Why are we being targeted, lieutenant?" Beatrice wondered as she clasped Paul's hand in her own.

"My security clearance isn't high enough for me to know the answer," said Lieutenant Korolyov. "I haven't even been briefed as to why you're travelling to Earth or whether you'll be travelling on from there. My job is to ensure that you make your scheduled rendezvous at Pacific City. It is my duty to guard you against any lunatic or saboteur who wants to prevent that happening."

"Well, thank you," said Paul, who was genuinely grateful that so many people were concerned about his welfare.

"You'd have thought, wouldn't you, that my duty would be fairly straightforward," continued the lieutenant, "but the task of guaranteeing your safety has been a challenge to every security officer assigned to you ever since you arrived at Ecstasy. There are two things I am here to inform you of. The first is that neither the captain of the space ship Ulysses nor any of the crew is aware of your real identities or even of your special security requirements. This isn't solely for security reasons. It's unlikely that the captain would agree to admit people like you whose mere presence could imperil all the other passengers."

"And the second thing you want to inform us of?" Beatrice asked when the lieutenant hesitated.

"It's quite simple," said the lieutenant. "Up until now the security personnel who've been assigned to you have been tailing you from a discreet distance. This hasn't been quite as successful as we'd have hoped. For your own safety, your movements will be much more circumscribed from now on. I have to inform you that the only place where you shan't be accompanied by a security officer will be when you are in your bedroom. Even there you will be discreetly monitored. I know this is a gross intrusion on your liberty and that as an anarchist this may be something you consider unacceptable, but it can't be avoided."

"So, we'll be watched wherever we go?" said Paul.

"Exactly," said Lieutenant Korolyov. "You'll be subject to the constant gaze of our surveillance equipment."

"Even when I go to the lavatory?" asked Beatrice.

"Everywhere."

"Who'll be sharing our apartment?" Paul asked. "Will they be Yuliya and Sergei?"

"Not any longer," said the lieutenant. "May I introduce Security Officers Mikhail Kasparov and Erika Tereshkova."

More Saturnians, thought Paul. He'd got rather accustomed to the company of bald men and women, but sometimes he yearned for the company of more easy-going and relaxed people. The further he travelled from his home colony the more he appreciated the advantages of a life where nobody had authority over or responsibility for anyone else.

The two guards were dressed sufficiently casually that they could pass for tourists, but they were to be Paul and Beatrice's constant companions every time either of them left the confines of their suite. When they sat down for lunch in the opulent restaurant, there was always a table nearby where the two Saturnians sat. Whenever they wandered through the space ship's gardens, the two guards were close at hand. They were never exactly by their side, but they were also never more than ten metres away.

On this occasion, Beatrice was perfectly content with their accommodation. It was, after all, amongst the most luxurious suites the Ulysses had to offer. She also took advantage of almost every opportunity to chat with their fellow passengers. They were also travelling towards Earth and in most cases somewhat more excited than Paul to be visiting the one planet in the Solar System where it was possible to survive in the open air. Paul felt like a fraud. It had never been one of Paul's chief ambitions in life to visit Earth. It wasn't that he didn't want to visit the Grand Canyon, the dry valleys of Antarctica, the wide expanses of ocean or all the many other natural wonders of his ancestral home. It was just that tourism didn't really appeal to him. He'd been quite content to live and work in Godwin. In a colony where there was no individual wealth or paid employment, not many would see the need for a vacation.

Paul's fellow passengers were a motley collection from the outer planets and beyond. Far more people in the Solar System lived beyond the inner planets and for many of them a voyage to where the sun loomed so large in the sky was a lifelong dream.

"I'm nearly a hundred and fifty years old," said a very slender woman from Uranus orbit whose face displayed a tangled mosaic of ornate tattoos. "It's been my desire to visit Earth ever since I was a little girl and at last I've managed to save enough to make the journey."

"Why do you want to go so much?" asked Beatrice.

"How can you even ask such a question? All I've mostly ever known has been the inside of a cylinder floating twenty times the distance of the Earth from the sun. Surely everyone wants to visit Earth."

"Isn't the weather somewhat variable?" commented Paul. "Even the most temperate regions on Earth have days when it's either too cold or too hot."

"At least I won't have to wear a cumbersome space suit to go outdoors," said the woman. "I'd love to breathe real natural air just once in my life."

There was a group of three women who Beatrice greeted while Paul and she were strolling in the huge pleasure garden that dominated the ship's outermost shell. At first they were visibly troubled by Beatrice's appearance. Even though she wasn't actually naked, she was dressed so scantily that her nipples were clearly visible beneath her lace outfit. She displayed almost as much flesh as the three women kept hidden. These women's Earthly objective was Mecca on the Arabian subcontinent.

"So few Muslims ever get to visit the holy city," said one of the women in heavily accented English that clearly wasn't her first language. "It's a privilege to do so, even though we aren't able to do so in the holy month of Dhū al-Ḥijja."

Mecca, more so than any other holy city or shrine on Earth, had suffered badly from the pilgrimage of billions of people from across the Solar System. The erosion was so great that its roads were gullies and its holy shrines almost reduced to nothing from daily contact with countless pilgrims over the centuries.

Very few of the people on Earth at any one time were residents. The majority were pilgrims, tourists and scientists. Although the planet's economy was heavily reliant on tourism, the number of visitors was strictly controlled to protect the fragile environment. Far more people in the Solar System wanted to visit Earth than were ever able to do so. The Moon was a crowded way-station for prospective visitors who had to wait for someone to leave before they could take their turn on the planet's surface.

The Earth could no longer afford to be over-exploited. Very little mining or mineral exploitation was sanctioned. Only palaeontologists and geologists were allowed to enter Earth's mines. Almost every economic activity that could have an impact on the atmosphere, biosphere or geosphere was banned. It was no wonder that the status of the planet that was once by far the wealthiest in the Solar System had been overtaken by Saturn and was now hardly more than a living museum.

"It's the geology that interests me," said a tall brown skinned man from Neptune. "There are no fossils other than tiny micro-organisms anywhere else in the Solar System. I've dedicated my life to comparative palaeontology, particularly of coprolites, but I've never seen a fossil in situ. I'll be visiting the deep cast mines of Bavaria where they've found some very interesting Jurassic feathered dinosaurs."

"I study literature," said a short pale woman from the distant Oort Cloud. "I've read so much, particularly from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. You could say that's my speciality. I've only ever seen facsimiles of these books. I shall be visiting famous literary sites in England, France and Italy. With any luck, I may even see an original manuscript though I won't be permitted to touch it."

"Too fragile, I suppose," suggested Beatrice.

"Books weren't designed to last over two thousand years," the woman said. "Some of the most fragile come from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries when they were mass-produced commodity items. Some books that were produced in their millions, such as the fiction of J K Rowling, Geoffrey Parker and J R R Tolkien are now incredibly rare."

"I've never heard of any of those authors," remarked Paul.

Although Beatrice found every opportunity during the day and evening to engage in conversation with other travellers, at night Paul had her exclusive attention. This pleasure was appreciably compromised by the knowledge that his every word and deed was being monitored for security purposes.

Beatrice was still so much a mystery to Paul even as they made love. And despite the wonders of modern regenerative medicine, this exercise left him totally drained. He was so tired in the morning that he generally slept in while Beatrice wandered alone (apart from the constant presence of her minder, Mikhail) about the decks of the vast luxury space ship. She'd return to their suite by about midday where Paul was normally still in bed. It wasn't that he was completely alone as he would always be accompanied by Erika who was as immune to Paul's charms as Mikhail was to Beatrice's.

"I was talking to this fascinating man," she said as Paul belatedly staggered to his feet to perform his daily ablutions. "He's an ichthyologist. He's going to one of the deep sea trench colonies in the Pacific."

"That can't be much different from living on Titan," remarked Paul.

"There's rather more sea-life on Earth," said Beatrice. "But you're right. The sea pressure is almost comparable to the air pressure on Venus."

"Not so hot though."

"But not nearly as cold as Titan."

"I'm sure," said Paul who didn't share Beatrice's enthusiasm for the extremes at which biological life survived in the Solar System.

Beatrice regarded Paul's minder, who was sitting silently and apparently very bored in the bedroom corner.

"Don't you think Erika's looking a little unwell?" she commented.

"She seems all right to me," Paul replied without even glancing at her. He was often quite irritated by the woman's constant presence. She only showed any interest in Paul when Beatrice was in the room.

"I'm sure there's a kind of unhealthy pallor on her cheeks."

"Perhaps it's just the way she was born."

He'd got so accustomed to the varied aspect of other travellers that he didn't know any more what was natural and what was enhanced. In a sense, nobody over middle age was truly natural. Paul certainly wasn't. Seventy percent of his body had been regenerated and half of that was no longer biological. Other tourists might well be entirely non-biological. It was hard to tell. And those who looked the most artificial might be a great deal more biological than appearances might suggest. Paul was no expert in distinguishing between genetic enhancement, biological regeneration and organic implants. Some passengers had gone well beyond the human genetic blueprint. He often cast his eye at a couple from the Uranian colony of Asimov who had metal implants that enhanced their natural senses but whose eyes were strangely inexpressive. There were also those, again from the Uranian orbit, who'd adopted other enhancements such as green or purple skin, platinum and silver hair, and even leathery wings which could be used for flying on low gravity moons. Paul was especially fascinated by the more erotic body styling that was popular amongst the Neptunians. He'd never before imagined that male genitalia, so proudly displayed by such individuals, could reach such dramatic proportions or that bosoms of such magnitude could be supported by a human frame (and not just sported by women).

"I'm very concerned about Erika's health," Beatrice insisted. "How do you feel, sweetheart?"

As far as Paul could see, Erika didn't look at all poorly. She was also perplexed by Beatrice's concern.

"I feel fine," she said. "Never felt better."

"What do you think, Mikhail?" Beatrice asked.

"I'm not qualified to comment," he said. "Our training covers remedial health care, but it's generally for wounds and broken bones."

"I've got some experience," said Beatrice. "After all, I did work in Emergency Rescue on Venus for several years. I think Erika should see a doctor."

She bent over Erika who was flustered more by the attention paid to her than by any evidence of ill health. Beatrice put a hand on Erika's forehead while her patient displayed more visible weakness from the touch of such a desirable woman than from any malady. With her other hand Beatrice pinched Erika quite hard at various points around the back of her neck and spine.

"How do you feel, Erika sweetheart?" Beatrice asked.

"I was feeling fine before you probed me," she said, "but I feel a bit nauseous now. It's as if I was suffering from vertigo."

"Do you agree that you should see a doctor?" Beatrice asked sympathetically.

"I don't think so," said Erika. "Perhaps I'd feel better if I just lay down."

"Yes. I'm sure that'll do the trick," said Beatrice. "In the meantime, I fancy a visit to the ship's core."

"The core?" wondered Paul. "Whatever do you want to do that for?"

"It could be interesting."

"I doubt it," said Paul. "The core of all large ships, of whatever class, is always much the same."

When Paul had first ventured into space, he'd quite enjoyed exploring the space ship that carried him. After so many years of having never travelled more than a few thousand kilometres from Godwin, space flight was a real novelty to him. But he now knew as much as he ever wanted about a ship's core. It was just a hollow cylinder that held life-support equipment and liquid water super-cooled under pressure. It was home to nothing more exotic than nanobots that constantly monitored the ship's vital systems. Those levels closest to the ship's core were where the least expensive cabins were crammed together along endless corridors. These were the levels with the greatest curvature and the least circumference so it was where the smallest cabins were located.

However, Beatrice was not a woman whose whims could be disregarded and Paul wasn't the man to persuade her otherwise. So, the married couple walked towards the escalator followed discreetly by Mikhail while Erika remained behind.

Before they left, Mikhail signalled to his fellow security officers that Erika was indisposed, so Paul was confident that fairly soon he and his wife would be accompanied by the standard complement of two guards.

As Paul anticipated, there really wasn't much to see at the ship's core. A narrow tube ran through the heart of the viscous liquid and was for the sole use of maintenance robots and their human supervisors. All space ships stored their water in these quarters: partly because it supplied the ship's life-support systems but also because it was the source material for the ship's antimatter and nuclear fusion engines. Water wasn't only the most common compound in the Solar System, but also the most versatile and one absolutely necessary for biological life.

Paul soon tired of the holographic avatar's explanation of the ship's workings, as was Mikhail, but Beatrice had no end of questions to ask. His thoughts were more inclined to wander towards Beatrice's scantily covered body which he lusted after in a way that Mikhail didn't. Paul knew that Beatrice would eventually give him the sexual satisfaction he desired, but for the moment she was much more interested in the Ulysses' architecture and engineering.

When Beatrice's questions had exhausted the avatar, Beatrice insisted that they should visit a small café on the innermost level that was for the use of the less affluent passenger. Paul was thankful that the credit available to him was backed by the Interplanetary Union, so that he didn't fall into that category. The modest choice of food and drink in the café was much more like what he'd been accustomed to on Godwin. It was healthy, well-balanced and easily recycled. There wasn't even the option of alcohol or coffee, any more than there would be on Godwin, so Paul had to settle for a fruit juice and a salad whose ingredients were grown in the ship's extensive greenhouses.

The other diners in the café were far less affluent than most of the Ulysses' passengers. Some hadn't benefited from even the quality of regenerative medical care available on Godwin and betrayed visible signs of aging. Paul knew he wasn't going to live forever but unless he was unlucky his years of senescence would be very few and his final decline rather rapid. And he didn't expect this to happen until he was well over a hundred years old. The travellers Beatrice engaged in conversation were a motley group of solitary travellers from the outer Solar System. What they had in common was a wish to visit Earth, but for quite diverse reasons.

One traveller must have come from a very poor colony as he was one of those with the most evident signs of aging. His shoulder-length hair was grey and thinning. His skin was stretched as thin as parchment. And he had deep lines on his face. He was a musician whose intention was to pay homage at the shrines of various twentieth century musicians. A traveller from Pluto was an entomologist. Although insects had spread all across the Solar System, there were still some that had never travelled beyond Earth and she wanted to study the beetles that lived in the newly regenerated rain forests. Whatever motives the passengers had for visiting Earth, whether their passion was historical, biological, cultural or religious: it could only be satisfied by a visit to the home planet. Until humankind discovered another planet with a breathable atmosphere and a long history, Earth's unique appeal would remain unmatchable.

The Ulysses was a large space ship. It was the largest type permitted for travel within the Solar System's ecliptic. It was a kilometre in circumference and seven kilometres in length of which a half was engine. It had fifty levels of which the outermost ones had a ceiling of nearly forty metres and it carried nearly a hundred thousand passengers. But even in a space ship of such a great size the deafening explosion that suddenly erupted while Paul and Beatrice chatted in the café was enough to upset the cups and send some passengers sprawling to the floor.

"What the fuck!" Mikhail swore. He was one of those who'd fallen onto the floor.

"What's happened?" asked Paul.

"I don't know," said Mikhail who studied his hand-held equipment for information before the space ship's internal communication system had the opportunity to reassure the passengers.

The Saturnian's already pale freckled face became noticeably paler.

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