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Alexandrian Librarians
 

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Alexandrian Librarians


  Alexandrian Librarians

  Stephen L. Burns

  Getting what you want is largely a matter of knowing where to look—and that’s hard to know until you’ve been there!

  Stephen L. Burns

  Alexandrian Librarians

  Few of my colleagues find headhunting all that appealing, but I rather enjoy sitting behind my lonesome table in Armstrong Hall once a year and watching the greenies go by.

  Ivesta Outward Lines is set up next to me, and they always draw a good crowd. Some of the greenies getting pitched there glance my way, their gazes sliding disinterestedly away again when they see the ugly hand-drawn placard reading

  HISTORICAL PRESERVATION OPERATIONS.

  Captain Tephillip Ornish.

  Sometimes they hold their noses or mime yawning.

  I don’t let their reaction bother me. Our reputation is something we all work very hard to maintain.

  It isn’t always easy, but I do my damndest to be backSol for the Academy’s pre-graduation Recruitment Day. This time I cut it especially close, coming in from the big digs on Bloor mojke II late last night, just in time to kill a few post-midnight brandies with Serafina and let her know that her best eye for fresh meat was ready for the hunt.

  The greenies filling Armstrong Hall all look so young—seemingly younger every year thanks to the Doppleresque effect of my own aging. I can see their dreams shining on their faces and gleaming in their eyes. Now and then one of them will have just enough of that certain something I’m looking for to make me access the AdMem socketed behind my ear, but so far none of them have made my pulse jump.

  So I just drink my coffee and stroke my shaggy mustache and watch and wait. My modest hangover fades as time passes.

  Then a new face emerges from the crowd’s youthful Brownian motion. One look and my heart begins to beat a little faster.

  She is tall and black and broad-shouldered. Her head is shaved, and she has a stubborn chin. Judging from the sheaf of flimsies in her hand, I would guess that she’s hit every table here—every one but mine. Unlike most of her classmates, who have the faces of children set loose in a candy store, she wears the faintly displeased frown of someone looking for something she isn’t finding.

  A directed thought starts my AdMem, and it begins telling me about her. Alessandra Desmond is her name; Cerean, age 25; top 15% of her class in terms of classwork, top 5% in simulation skills; her overall rating quite a bit below that because of a fairly hefty infractfile. The info spools on, but I’m not really paying it any mind. I know she is a perfect candidate for our motley, rustbucket Prezzie fleet.

  She senses my attention and turns to stare at me.

  I smile and beckon her over. Her frown deepens. She looks around to see if anyone is watching, gives a little shrug and approaches my table with an air of glum challenge.

  “Good day to you,” I say, sitting up a little straighter so she will take my captain’s insignia a little more seriously—though probably not enough to cancel out my mud-brown, ineptly cut bad joke of a uniform.

  “Captain,” she answers grudgingly. “Sir.” It worked.

  “Tell me,” I say, offering a dog-eared, crudely produced flimsy, “Have you ever considered signing with Historical Preservation Operations?”

  Her frown dissolves into a truly wonderful grin. “You must be joking,” she says with a laugh.

  I laugh along with her, positive she’s just what I’m looking for. As I laugh I tag her dossier and register it with Placement. Historical Preservation Operations may not get much in the way of money or publicity, but one thing we do get is incontestable pick of three greenies each year. Some years we find them, some years we don’t.

  I’ve just found this splendid creature, and even if I don’t find two more, my trip will have been a success.

  Of course when she finds out that she’s been assigned to the Prezzie fleet she’s going to feel completely misplaced and screwed over. They all do.

  I know I did.

  Graduation was behind me. It was my very first cruise as an actual crewmember of a real starship.

  I was off-duty and holed up in my quarters, adding a few more bitches to the long and bile-filled tacx I planned to send my friend, former classmate and occasional lover Ivania Bleinstein, when my horrible misbegotten sentence to the hellhull I was on ended and I finally got backSol. My grievances began with the majbitch which had made me subject to the mins; namely the rotten, royal and utterly unbelievable screwing over Placement had given me.

  Every so often I would pause to take gloomy stock of what had become my lot in life; my lumpy, grav-controless bunk, obsolete percomp and antique vertainment console. A previous occupant with bizarre tastes and too much time on his hands had painted the scratched plazic cabin walls with some sort of hideous mural. The aliens in it always seemed to be laughing at me, which at least wasn’t as unnerving as what the ones in my hygiene cubicle were doing.

  The rest of the ship was just as disheartening to behold. While the Gibbon was stardriver equipped, she was also a dumpy old rustbucket whose systems were decades out of date, and whose raddled, run-down condition marked her as at least ten years past the time when she should have been junked.

  The manifest injustice of my assignment was so glaringly obvious that I still couldn’t believe that the one appeal I’d had time to register with Placement had been turned down. With my grades I should have been a junior officer on one of the big sleek interstellar liners, my crisp white uniform drawing the adoring eyes of rich and nubile fem passengers, and my destinations exotic ports of call like Neu Paris, Sunflash or Glimmermere. Or I should have been a JO on one of the huge colony ships, giving adventurous settler fems a chance to add to the genetic diversity of the worlds they were going to help populate. Or a JO on one of Contact Corp’s swift, subtly armed ships. Or—

  In other words, I should have been anywhere other than stuck on a fugitive from the scrapyard geosynched over a dead world, waiting around while a bunch of uffy braincases got their rocks off pawing over a bunch of crap so old you couldn’t even tell what it was.

  It was boring, unfair, unbearable, and if I couldn’t get Placement to give a serious hearing to my next appeal it was a guaranteed dead end, my career slagged before it even began.

  I was not a happy crewper, and I was caught completely by surprise by the eardrum-rattling, blood-curdling whoop of the ship’s emergency siren.

  My pad went flying off my lap as I leapt to my feet, and I nearly broke my nose when my compartment’s sluggish door opener didn’t get it out of my way quite fast enough. Seconds later I was running down the corridor toward Command, hand cupped around the pain in the middle of my face and cursing nasally around it.

  The siren died just as I squeezed past that still-opening door. “Present, ma’am!” I puffed as I reached the command console, coming to attention and saluting the Gibbon’s captain.

  Captain Serafina Chandaveda was a chunky, brown-skinned woman in her late thirties, whose concept of proper uniform leaned toward baggy shorts, garishly patterned shirts with the sleeves torn off, and no shoes. She looked up from her glum contemplation of her boards. “That’s good, Ornish,” she said mildly. “Very prompt response.”

  “Thank you, ma’am—” I began, but she’d turned her attention back to her boards. So I waited at attention for my orders.

  In the hundreds of emergency simulations I’d been through back at the Academy things had always happened very quickly, potential disaster averted by fast decisive action. But Captain Chandaveda just sat there, kinetic as a chess player.

  And sat there…

  After a couple minutes of this I couldn’t stand the suspense any longer. “Isn’t there an emerge
ncy, Captain?” I asked cautiously.

  She sighed and rubbed her round brown chin. “Well, we’ve got a problem, anyway. Come on in and take a look.”

  “Yes ma’am.” I hustled partway around the compartment’s circumference to enter the horseshoe-shaped command area. That inner deck was supposed to rotate, but it was stuck in one position.

  When I came up behind her she pointed to one particular screen. “See those areas flashing red?”

  “Yes ma’am.”

  “Any idea what they are?”

  I concentrated on the various reads. “That’s K’leven’s moon.” The planet the Prezzies were down on was cataloged as K11-21B/G271/B3, but we’d all been calling it K’leven for short. “The sensor readings seem to suggest some sort of, uh, gravitational anomalies on its surface.”

  She nodded. Her chair squeaked as she turned to face me. “Very good. Any idea what they are?”

  I didn’t have a clue, but that wasn’t something I wanted to admit. “First I’d need, uh, more comprehesive scanning and first order extrapolation, which, ah—”

  “Which this old tub hasn’t got in her,” she finshed with a faint sarcasm. “In other words, no.” She crossed her arms before her ample bosom. “You may have noticed that the planet and its satellite look like they’ve had large chunks torn out of and blown into them. Does that suggest anything?”

  “Dr. Xan said they had a war, ma’am,” I began uncertainly. The leader of the Prezzie expedition had said lots of things, but to be honest I had tuned most of them out. Every conversation seemed to turn into a class, and I’d already graduated.

  The captain let out a derisive snort. “They had their own personal vulking apocalypse, Ornish. These folks discovered at least some crude form of gravitic control, and they used it to take potshots at each other using chunks of their worlds bigger than this ship as ammo.”

  I tried to imagine such a thing, and came close enough to not want to get any closer. That much mass impacting at even meteoric speeds would release the same sort of energy as a several gigatonne bomb. It was no wonder there were no overt signs the place had ever been inhabited.

  “So what we’re seeing here is big trouble brewing,” she went on, snapping me out of my appalled daze. “It looks like either our arrival, or something our friends down on K’leven did has managed to wake up a weapons system left over from the war fought here.”

  I stared at her in disbelief. “But they said both K’leven and its moon have been dead a thousand years!”

  She shrugged. “Hey, every military wants its weapons built to last longer than the targets they’re used on. It looks like our lobster people got their money’s worth. According to what the Gibbon’s guts can predict, the area where the expedition is working is going to get hammered with half a dozen chunks of rock weighing a few hundred tons each less than four hours from now.”

  I don’t know which I found scarier; what she had just said, or the matter-of-fact way she said it. “So what do we do, ma’am?” I stammered.

  She squinted up at me. “First quit ma’aming me every vulking time I turn around!”

  I went to parade rest, head bowed meekly. “Yes’m.”

  “As for what we do about it, I plan to stay right here, monitor the situation, and have the Gibbon somewhere other than geosynched between the moon and ground zero when the rocks start to fly.”

  She stood, looked me up and down. The expression on her face said she wasn’t too excited by what she was seeing. “And you,” she said, “Are going down to get our passengers the hell out of there.”

  Shortly afterward I was sitting in the cockpit and at the controls of the Gibbon’s shuttle, rerunning the preflight checks as I waited for Captain Chandaveda to return.

  Saying that I was a bit nervous would be placidifying my mental state by a twitch or twice. In the five minutes since the captain had left me there to wait while she went to get something, I’d made two dry and fruitless trips to the head.

  When I first learned that I’d been sentenced to a Prezzie ship, and that while I would technically be first officer—the entire crew consisted of myself and the captain—I’d envisioned endless scutwork as my inglorious and undeserved fate.

  There had been scutwork, of course, but not quite as much as I’d expected. Spit and polish wasn’t Sara fina Chandaveda’s style. Her attitude seemed to be that if something worked more or less properly, leave it the hell alone.

  One thing I hadn’t expected was this sort of sudden serious responsibility. JO’s were supposed to watch and learn and leave the critical work to more experienced hands.

  “I can do this,” I kept muttering. I was the one who had taken the Prezzies and their equipment down in the first place, so piloting the shuttle was nothing new The only difference this time was that their lives depended on me getting them back off again. I repeated my mantra and began another check.

  “OK, Ornish,” Captain Chandaveda said, nearly making me jump out of my skin. Those bare feet had let her sneak up on me like a ninja. “Here’s one last piece of equipment for you.”

  I stood up and faced her, almost falling back into my chair when I saw that she had a gun. It was old and big and chemo-mechanical, and it appeared extremely deadly.

  “Ma’am?” I asked, my voice an octave or two higher than normal.

  “Just take it,” she said tartly as she offered it to me butt-first. She scowled. “They still give weapons training at the Academy, don’t they?”

  “Yes’m,” I answered, taking it and wondering if this was the time to mention that I had only passed the course because my instructor had taken pity on me. I was an ace at weapons safety and maintenance. The problem came when I actually tried to hit something. I checked the safety, then looked around for a safe place to put it.

  “I want you to carry it, Ornish,” she said, sounding more than a little exasperated. “Put it in your waistband under your jacket. Keep it hidden and on you at all times. It might just come in handy if they try to pull an Alexandrian Librarian on you.”

  “A what? I don’t—”

  She sighed. “Just do it, Ornish. Now get your ass in gear and get the job done. I’m counting on you.” She turned on her bare heel and headed for the airlock, glancing back over her shoulder just as she went through. She gave me an odd look, then said, “Be sure and bring them back alive!”

  “What?” I called, but the lock door was closing between us.

  All I could do was jam the gun into my waistband as ordered, sit back down in the pilot’s seat and initiate separation. The clamps released, there was a slight lurch, and my rescue mission began.

  The shuttle’s under-juiced and over-aged gravitic propulsion systems gave it a fairly limited payload capacity and speed; like everything else they owned, it seemed to be a fifth generation hand-me-down. Ferrying the Prezzies and all their gear down to K’leven had taken three trips, and given me plenty of time for sightseeing.

  But this trip I was seeing the planet’s battered surface with new eyes. The closer I got, the more chilling the picture became.

  When Captain Chandaveda had said that the war which had been fought between the inhabitants of the planet and its major satellite had been their own personal apocalypse, she hadn’t been hyping the scale and scope of destruction below me. Deep craters pocked K’leven’s surface, some of them still fuming sullenly these thousand years later, the wounds deep enough to have created volcanic vents. There were fissures and chasms large enough to swallow the Gibbon whole, the skeletal remains of rivers boiled dry and seas turned to ashy mud. Of cities, or roads, or other fingerprints of civilization there was not the faintest trace. It had been a living world, and now it was not. The difference, and just how awful the changeover had been, was finally coming clear to me.

  It was hard to believe that anything could have survived intact through such a deadly barrage. But something had. Buried deep under the splintered stump of what had once been a mountain there was a thick-walled vault cont
aining objects which the K’leven had felt worthy of such a calculated attempt at preservation. The Spyter which had first scouted out this system discovered this hidden repository on its half light-speed scan-run through. When it had come back Sol at the end of its two year mission and disgorged the information gathered on its travels through uncharted systems, evidence of this vault had come to light. The Prezzies had immediately mounted an expedition to investigate. That’s what Prezzies do.

  I had eagerly awaited the first images of what was inside, imagining gold and jewels and priceless works of art, or strangely beautiful alien machinery which might give us whole new technologies. When Dr. Xan and his colleagues had begun proudly showing off what looked like halfmelted bars of rock, piles of dirty plastic-plate-looking things, and heaps of what appeared to be blobs of either brown gravel or fossil turds, I lost interest pretty quickly.

  Not my captain, though. She pored over anything they transmitted like it was the latest episode of some sizzy new vidrama. Too long hanging around dead planets with a bunch of yawners like the Prezzies, I figured. That was one more reason to get replaced as soon as I could. I didn’t want the same sort of brain damage to happen to me.

  The shuttle bucked slightly as it entered the edges of what remained of the planet’s tainted atmosphere, steadied, continued its slow descent. On one hand I wanted it to go taster, on the other I was dreading the moment when I had to step out onto the bull’s-eye below This didn’t do much to help me relax.

  After what seemed like an interminable trip I finally landed at the Prezzies’s base camp, a flat area near the foot of the mountain. Since they were on what had become the most dangerous spot in the whole system, and these were supposedly rational people, I had expected to find them standing by and impatient to climb aboard.

  There were several tarp-covered piles of extra equipment and who knew what else off to one side of the ellzee, but the only member of the expedition in sight was Shelby, the big, old-style all-metal free aidroid who was part of their team.

 
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