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Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur

Perseus Spur 10


  "We'll call this first human taste test a success," Ethan said heartily. He ordered the native technician to pack up the culture dish, the basket, and the jar containing the new spores in an armored dispatch case. Then: "Lmuzu, I thank you for calling this to my attention. For the time being, you and your people must say nothing about rozkoz-gold to any other human. Is that understood?"

  The Zmundi said, "Yes, Ethanfrost."

  "Who knows? The koz variant may turn out to be worthless after all, or impossible to culture in bulk." Ethan eye-balled the case's lock and it clicked emphatically. We said goodbye and took off in the hopper.

  When we were airborne my uncle said, "I suppose you know that rozkoz production still depends upon the natives gathering koz spores. After two or three generations, the plant's reproduction fails under laboratory conditions for unknown reasons. There must be some natural factor in the mudpools we've failed to duplicate in our factories."

  "Is that why rozkoz is only produced on Seriphos?"

  "Yes. The flavoring principle itself can be made artificially, of course, but it lacks the subtlety and smoothness of the genuine stuff. We've set up thousands of small collection depots at the principal geothermal areas where Zmundigaim collectors bring in the spores. Each batch is tested for contamination by the native technician in charge of the depot before being stockpiled for shipment to the factories in Vetivarum."

  "Is it unusual to find mutant strains?"

  "It's happened seven times in the twenty-five years Rampart has exploited the resource. Six of the mutations turned out to be useless commercially for various reasons. The seventh was the blockbuster flavor variant we call rozkoz-blue. Boosted corporate profits by fifteen percent."

  "Did the Insaps who found the blue stuff get a bonus or anything?"

  Ethan looked at me askance. "No."

  "It figures," I muttered. My tone was just short of impertinence, but my uncle didn't take offense as Simon would have.

  "The human lab workers who cultured the new strain and refined and tested it didn't get a special reward, either. Why should they? They're employees, not Rampart stakeholders."

  "But the Zmundigaim are different. It's their world!"

  "So?"

  "Maybe they ought to be stakeholders. Did you ever think of that, Uncle Ethan? Rampart has earned billions from rozkoz and its other xenocommodities, but all the Perseus Spur Insaps got was dependency. Their culture has been changed forever because of human interference." I stared out the hopper window at a towering volcano belching gray ash into the stratosphere. "I think it's wrong . .. and I'm not the only one."

  "Would you like to see the Zmundigaim producing rozkoz themselves and selling it to humanity?"

  "Yes," I said, with righteous defiance.

  "But they wouldn't be able to do that without our continuing help."

  "Then why can't we just give them that help? They're intelligent. They could learn to operate the factories."

  "That's not the way interstellar entrepreneurship works. We don't operate as charitable institutions. Do you seriously think we should give away everything we've worked for to natives who are still basically at the hunter-gatherer level of society?"

  "Not everything. I'm not an idiot. But if Insaps were actual stakeholders—"

  "A stakeholder is a direct participant in corporate management, Asa. A highly educated, sophisticated being whose life is intimately involved in the high-tech workplace. Not a single Indigenous Sapient race in the Perseus Spur could fill those criteria. The Qastt might qualify it they weren't so self-centered and devious. The Haluk might qualify if they weren't so relentlessly xenophobic. Nobody else."

  But I persisted. "That Zmundi back at the collection depot seemed to have the potential to be more than a button-pusher. People like him could surely advance to a high level of civilization if we didn't deny them education and technology as a matter of policy."

  "The Zmundigaim wouldn't make it unless they were willing to change their lives in a drastic fashion. Give up their nomadic habits and live permanently in cities. Go to school for years. Organize their days by the clock. Change their clan-based political structure. Engage in social and economic planning. Live like humans. Do you think that Lmuzu and his people want to do that at this stage in their evolution?"

  "I don't know," I admitted.

  "Well, I do," Ethan said. "And the answer is no"

  "Maybe on Seriphos. But how about the other inhabited worlds that humanity has colonized and exploited? In the Orion Arm, the Hundred Concerns use the preindustrial alien races as slave labor, or treat them like hostile savages if they decline to cooperate with the commercialization of their worlds. Maybe Rampart isn't quite as bad as the others, but—"

  "So you're a Reversionist like your mother," Ethan said mildly. "You think the Commonwealth should force human companies to abandon planets having pretechnological Insap populations—or else accept the natives as full stakeholders in every commercial operation."

  "Yes! That's exactly what I think. Go ahead and laugh if you want."

  "I won't do that, Asa. I won't even lecture you on what would happen to our human economy if we followed the Reversionist Guiding Principles—or remind you that the Commonwealth doesn't have the power to force Big Business to do much of anything. I will point out to you that Rampart's colonial policies are among the most humane and liberal in the galaxy. And not for altruistic reasons, either, but for practical ones! I'll also state my belief that you and the adult Rever-sionists propose a simplistic solution to a fiendishly complex problem." He paused for breath, frowning. "Maybe a little story would get my point across. Do you know how I discovered rozkoz?"

  "1 thought you just... did."

  "Not quite," he said, and told me about it.

  * * *

  When Galapharma AC retreated from the Perseus Spur in 2176, [Ethan said], the native populations saw their fortunes take a disastrous nosedive. Concern policy had denied the natives higher education and advanced technology, while at the same time permitting them to become addicted to the luxuries of human culture. But now Big Business had sailed off into the sunset, taking most of its goodies with it. Things looked grim. No more modern tools to cut wood or break stone. No more fusion stoves to cook on. No more heaters to warm the hut or Glo Lites to keep it brightly lit after sundown. No more telsats that let you keep in touch with relatives in the next valley. No more Danaëan beer!

  Even the Qastt pirates fell on hard times without human ships to plunder. Only the Haluk were glad Galapharma was gone.

  The commercial vacuum was so dire that most of the Spur peoples were eager to welcome the human wildcat entrepreneurs who entered the Zone after Gala's retreat. The first group of Earthling grubstakers who came here to Seriphos were pretty typical of the new wave of independent exploiters. Their little company was undercapitalized and inexperienced. They reopened the planet's shasha-bark farms and platinum mines and got them back into production; but in the end they were defeated by the same problems that had driven out Galapharma Amalgamated Concern. The money-strapped newcomers paid native workers even less than Galapharma had and refused to compromise on local customs that seemed counterproductive. So the Zmundigaim slowed production to a ruinous level. Even worse, the company couldn't afford heavy armament for its transport vessels, and attacks by Qastt pirates during the long trips back to Orion Arm market worlds finally made it impossible to turn a profit.

  The situation on most of the other Spur planets was similarly discouraging. The Commonwealth did its best to help the struggling freesoil human colonies, but it lacked the resources to patrol the Perseus region effectively and provide basic services. By 2183, CHW seriously considered withdrawing from Zone 23 altogether.

  Along came the Rampart Interstellar Corporation. We were young and we were brash and we had what we thought was a completely new management philosophy—conceived, by Yours Truly! I figured that we had a good chance of succeeding where Galapharma and the freelance outfits had
failed.

  The Starcorp founders and managing directors were my brother Simon and I, and our Arizona U college buddy Dirk Vanderpost, whose inheritance provided most of the company's start-up capital. We were backed by seventeen stakeholders— engineers, technicians, and computer wonks—who didn't work for a salary but for a share of the profits, if any.

  Our outfit arrived on Seriphos in a freighter named Rio Tonto. She was an old ship, but we'd armed her to the teeth with high-powered actinic cannons to fend off the Qastt. Her cargo consisted of the most efficient mining and processing equipment that we were able to obtain. My grand notion, which was completely contrary to "cost effective" Concern practice throughout the Orion and Sagittarius regions of the galaxy, was really rather simple: Rampart was going to treat the Insap workers of Seriphos like real people instead of backward savages.

  We set up shop at a promising abandoned platinum mine, and a few very cautious Zmundi miners, trained years before by Galapharma, applied for work. I told them Rampart would pay human-equivalent wages to those who worked as hard as human beings, and proportional salaries to the less efficient. I also told the natives that they'd work only seven hours each day instead of the obligatory twelve they had endured under Gala and the late gang of wildcatters. And instead of restricting the workers to barracks for five days and allowing them only a single day off at home, as had been the usual practice, I let them commute to nearby temporary villages each night. Most important of all, I agreed that the Zmundi-gaim would not be forced to work the mines during the harsh North Continent winter. Instead we'd shut down for the season and the people would be allowed to migrate en masse to the coast, as had been their immemorial custom before the arrival of humanity.

  I have to tell you, Asa, that your father didn't have too much faith in my scheme. Simon conceded that the Zmundi people were smarter than a lot of other aborigines, but he also pointed out that everybody knew they were basically lazy and undependable.

  I said, "Maybe—but the Zmundigaim also desperately want the kind of consumer goods that human credit buys, so it's worth the gamble."

  A bunch more native miners applied for work and we started producing PeeTee. And what d'you think happened?

  Even with the seasonal delay, my "inefficient" operations plan was a humongous success. The Insaps worked their tails off and old Rio Tonto was loaded with platinum ingots in only half the time we'd estimated—eleven months. The profits were going to be outstanding.

  According to plan, Rampart got ready to leave Seriphos.

  On the night before the ship was scheduled to lift off for Calapuyo in the Orion Arm, the closest market for the PeeTee, a deputation of Zmundi elders came to Rampart's headquarters at the mineworkings. All of us humans were having a farewell party and things were a trifle raucous, but I took the aliens into my office to find out what they wanted.

  The headwoman was named Gminkzu. She put on the translator and said, "You have treated us with honor and respect, Ethanfrost. Our clan has prospered because of your coming. For this reason all Zmundigaim will look forward to your return to Seriphos."

  I thanked her, but told her that Rampart was planning to pull up stakes and move on to the planet Hadrach, aT-2 about fifty-five light-years away. I tried to explain that the Seriphos operation was intended from the start to be both a test of my novel operations theory and a means of making some fast money that would enable Rampart to upgrade its equipment and take in more stakeholders. On Hadrach, where the environment and native population were admittedly not so congenial to humanity, we'd mine and process scandium, an element essential to antimatter fuel generation that was worth three hundred times as much as platinum. 1 didn't bother to tell her that the EssCee was not only lucrative but also a sure attention-getter among Earthside bancorps that we hoped to cajole into financing Rampart's expansion.

  Gminkzu was badly disappointed. She said, "We beseech you to stay, Ethanfrost! Besides the platinum, our world has other products coveted by humanity. The old shasha-bark plantations, which yielded a valued medicine to Galapharma Concern, would require only fertilization, pruning, and restoration of the fog-mite barriers. There are also fine gemstones in the gravel of the River Naral—"

  "I'm sorry," I said. "A giant outfit like Galapharma would be able to make use of those resources, but we're too small to make them pay."

  Gminkzu clacked her mandibles, expressing heartfelt regrets. Then, as a special mark of esteem, she presented me with a farewell gift, a box of delicacies resembling crystallized sugar, flavored with a "magic food" that the Zmundi-gaim had kept secret from the hated Galapharma invaders.

  "Its name," she said, "is rozkoz. When we prepare rozkoz for ourselves, we mix it with the aromatic resin of the kmulu bush. But we know that humans do not esteem the resin, having feeble mouthparts, so we have mixed your rozkoz with ababa honey. We hope you will enjoy it. Rozkoz gladdens both the mouth and the mind."

  Then Gminkzu and the elders went away. I took the box of exotic candy into the party, and Dirk Vanderpost and Karl Nazarian dared me to eat some of it. I took a little nibble, and you can imagine my reaction. Other volunteer tasters were similarly thrown for a loop, and the entire boxful of rozkoz would have been gobbled up in five minutes flat by the crew if I hadn't snatched it away. I ignored the howls of disappointment and locked it in the ship's safe.

  Then I said, "You damn drunken fools! Don't you know what this is?"

  Gunter Eckert said, "Better than chocolate, for sure."

  "It's our jackpot!" I told them. "The gravy train! The big break!"

  Simon figured it out, too, and said, "Tan my hide, I think the little pipsqueak's right."

  Next morning, when our chemist was sober enough to operate the organic analyzer, she tested rozkoz and found that it contained an artful blend of twelve previously unknown alkaloids and esters. It surely does gladden the mouth and mind, as any human who's ever tasted it will agree, it has no harmful side-effects when consumed in moderation, and its usefulness as a flavoring is limited only by the ingenuity of the confectionary cook. The rest, [Ethan concluded], is history.

  * * *

  I remained on Seriphos for another two months until my parents' divorce was final, frolicking discreetly with my cousins John, Hannah, and Mariah, who were all in their teens. Zared, Ethan's oldest child at twenty-two, had already mounted the lowest rung on the Rampart corporate ladder, as had my own older brother Daniel. I toured the offices of Rampart Central with Cousin Zed, whom I soon classified as a total dork, meditated upon my own future, and decided once and for all that I'd never work for Rampart. Not if my life depended upon it.

  I wanted something diametrically opposed to interstellar Big Business, and I didn't hesitate to let my father know it. Simon squelched my juvenile idealism brutally by telling me that I could either study xenocommerce and corporation law with a view to entering Rampart, or forgo a higher education altogether and spend the rest of my life shoveling horse manure at the Sky Ranch—since he'd personally make sure nobody else ever hired me.

  I pretended to cave in, went to the University of Arizona and Harvard, and did the family proud.

  On the day I earned my JD degree, I told Simon and Ethan and the other relatives gathered at the celebration that I had been accepted by the Interstellar Commerce Secretariat as a special agent in the Corporate Fraud Department. Ethan wished me good luck. My father looked at me for a few silent moments, then told me he never wanted to lay eyes on me again.

  I told him that if Rampart behaved itself, he probably wouldn't.

  Chapter 8

  The hotel room vidphone purred at ten o'clock on the dot. I answered woozily, thinking it was the live wake-up call to be expected in an upscale establishment like the Ritz-Carlton. But it was Ivor Jenkins, and his rotund face on the viewer was ashen with anxiety.

  "Helly! Oh, God—I've been trying to get through to you for hours. But the desk refused to disturb you until ten, and Captain Bermudez was out of his room and not answering
his pocket phone."

  Still at his girlfriend's place, no doubt. "Calm down, Ivor. What's happened?"

  "Clive's gone! I've searched the house, the grounds, everywhere. His car is here. I'm calling from the gatehouse. Don't worry—the guard is out of earshot. The man says Clive didn't leave with anybody else. All I found were his shoes and I'm afraid—I'm afraid—"

  I was sitting on the edge of the bed, dread rendering me more alert than any artificial stimulant could. I pressed the confidential encrypt button on the phone and its triple bleep sounded. "Ivor, stop. From the beginning. What happened after I left the house?"

  He told the story in his incongruously pedantic fashion. "I took Citizen Swann-Hepplewhite into the garden and served her champagne. She was very much surprised when I told her that I was Clive's new houseman, so I waxed creative about how busy he was and how Rampart was grooming him for an important new post—only she mustn't say a word about it to him or I'd be discharged. After a while Clive appeared and did the cookout. He was rather nervous, but he covered it well. He begged me to give him some privacy when I tried to assist him with the barbecuing, so I slipped away and undertook surveillance from the bushes. He and Lois consumed the food and drank all the wine, and then the two of them went into the house. To the bedroom. I stayed in the office across the hall, watching the door. A long time afterward they came out, went downstairs, and had some coffee. She kissed him goodbye and drove away. He went to bed. I pulled a chair out of the office and sat outside his door. But—But I fell asleep along about dawn, and when I looked into his bedroom, he was gone. I searched the house and then the grounds, but all I found were the shoes. Blue suede shoes."

  "Where?" I said, knowing what he was going to say.

  "Beside the fumarole," said Ivor. "It was smoking furiously. And somebody'd taken the grill off the opening..."

  What was it the gateman had said? A barbecuin 'fool, young Clive.

  "Go home right now, Ivor," I said. "Call a taxi. I'll have someone take care of everything at Leighton's place. Mimo will come around and see you later today. Watch your back."