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To Die For

By: Laura Sheridan

A sphere. Like any other sphere. Well, let's face it, out here in space, you've got any number of spheres. Only shape that makes sense. Hard to imagine a rectangular world, or a cone - or one shaped like a Louis Quatorze chair. So anyway, it loomed ahead of us, all green and purple swirls; kind of pretty in a nothing-like-Earth sort of way and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Except for Am, who didn't breathe - at least, not in the conventional sense.

"Bleed'n pink chewing gum." Kurran grumbled, trying to extricate himself from his seat. One had to peel one's way out of comatack, not struggle like a pterosaur in a tarpit.

"Dropping into natural orbit," I said, watching the control panel with one eye and glancing at the cascade of my hair with the other. Butterscotch; that was this season's colour. Went rather nicely with the periwinkle blue of my eyes. And I had cheekbones to die for. Julian had told me so at the Winster's party.

"Quit gawping at yourself, Ralf," Kurran grunted, in his mild Ozzy twang. "And help me out of these wraps." He was pulling at the plastic and suction pads stuck round his head and if he wasn't careful, he was going to do himself a damage. I could understand his impatience, although I do wish he wouldn't get so worked up over trivialities. I remember once, he busted a clown's nose at a kiddies' party. Something about clowns got on his nips.

He wasn't keen on coma-drive, either. Said it made him sweat too much. Indeed, but you had to admit, shrink-wrapping lost you a good couple of inches, especially around the thighs and tum. Came back as soon as you had a drink, of course, but it was a temporary boost to the morale. And the way your clothes just slipped on afterwards.

"You don't half get yourself in a tangle," Goat tutted, drifting up out of his cradle to help. For a big lad, he had delicate fingers. His real name wasn't Goat. His real name was Gus Redman. But everyone called him Goat. Goes back to his college days and a time when he got batted out of his head on vodka and pernods and they found him flat out on the rugby field next morning with the team mascot. We don't ask.

As usual, I was left to fend for myself. Am wasn't much use. She was stuck up on the ceiling, sucking a blend of acetic acid and lipids out of her feedbag. She didn't need coma-drive, on account of her not really being quite alive.

So there we were - a whinging Australian with a thin nose and longish dark hair and - it had to be said - in dire need of a good eyebrow wax; a big, freckled, hairy bloke with eyes like burn holes in a blanket; a sweater-sized glob of nasal mucus with a taste for vinaigrette; and me. The only normal person in the entire group. Christ - what you had to work with these days. It was enough to make you spit.

"You will remember," I reminded them, as I picked filmy pink off my thigh. "That this is a diplomatic mission. One word out of place and you could blow the whole deal."

Goat scratched at his ear. "Wouldn't it just be easier to vaporite them?"

I was exasperated, but hid it well. "Look, all we've got to do is persuade them that they'd be better off in the Denner Domes. See - two dreamy little moons. And one of them even has water. Polar ice-caps."

"They aint gonna go for that," Kurran grunted and his negative vibes were just a tad irritating. "Not when they've a perfectly bonzer world down there."

"Ah, but have they? It's probably full of disease, predatory animals, earthquakes, tidal waves, weird weather patterns and strange anomalies caused by industrial pollution. Once we install them in the Celestial Palaces -"

"Palaces?" Kurran grimaced. That was all very well, but couldn't he see we needed an elegant name - something to distract them from the fact that they were about to move into a collection of plastic domes, linked together by tunnels?

"The Nadd-Linis will be much happier off-world," I said. "On that larger moon, they'll be lifted to a higher plane where they can fulfil their more sophisticated potential -"

"While we shufty in and take their planet," Kurran finished.

"Yes…well. It's for their own good."

Am flopped a wet tendril onto my head. It felt like a rag soaked in cold wallpaper paste and tended to make a bit of a mess of your hair, but she needed contact to communicate. What is this urge you humans have - this impulse to take someone else's things?

"I wouldn't say it was an urge, exactly," I murmured, watching as Goat sneaked two chocolate biscuits out from under Kurran's clothing bundle and stuffed them both in his mouth at once. "More like survival of the fittest."

And humans are the fittest?

"I'd say so." My earlier inspection of the Nadd-Lini world showed a promising assortment of features indispensable to humankind; a nitrogen atmosphere with just a touch more oxygen than we're used to, lots of green-tinged sea-water, six large landmasses and speckles of smaller ones - and oodles of vegetation. It was even green. Good old chlorophyll. Where would we be without it? Pity most of the terrain was purple. Not my favourite colour. Some kind of mineral-bearing rock, from what I could make out.

Never mind. There'd be plenty of time to study that, later. Goat was the exploitation expert. If it had a use, Goat would find it. And if it didn't, he'd invent one. I mean - look at what he did with Kiva Relish. Produced by kivabugs on Rennie Four, it looked like cat vomit, tasted like soap and gave you the squits after you'd eaten it. But somehow, he'd managed to convince most of the civilised colonies that it was a delicacy, absolutely essential at parties. And now they were buying it by the bucketload. Fabulous marketing job.

Now; what to wear? The primrose made me look a bit sallow; I think I might have been coming down with something. And the sage was a bit dark for my hair. So I settled for the marine blue. Not ideal, but what can you do when you're stuck with a minimal wardrobe? Goat had already tugged on his stained buff coveralls and was taking us in for the landing. We were heading for a nice little bay, sparkling waters and violet sand. Boy, would these people - although, strictly speaking, you couldn't call them people - get a surprise.

Kurran flipped on the boomer. "Can I do it, this time?" he whinged, but with that awful accent, it just wouldn't sound convincing.

"Listen, dear," I said, touching his shoulder. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you're much better at all that technical stuff." I turned to Goat. What are we going for this time - booming overlord or gentle persuader?"

He could see I was itching to do it. "Oh, get on with it," he grunted.

I seated myself at the transmission outlet and cleared my throat. "People of Nadd-Lini," I said, in my most imperious voice. "Behold, your gods have come down to you, as was prophesied in your ancient tales. This is your day of salvation."

Goat frowned at the screen. "They're looking kind of puzzled."

Not surprising, really. They wouldn't have understood a word of what I'd said. Sounded good, though. It was a bit difficult to tell whether or not they were puzzled, with those fish faces they had. I mean - take a mackerel, stand it upright and drape a few strips of seaweed on it, and that's what they looked like. A pitiful collection of shambling dullards.

"Are those weapons?" I asked.

Goat shook his head. "Look more like hunting sticks. These people are at a pretty primitive stage of development. I'd say, if you were going to parallel it with Earth, that they'd bypassed the dinosaur and mammal stage and just clambered up out of the ocean, full stop." Well, I was no evolutionary expert, but I reckoned he was probably right. They had stumpy little arms, ending in webbed fingers, and strangely lizard-like legs. Their tails swished about making gritty arcs in the sand, which was probably their way of showing consternation.

"We mean you no harm," I announced in my most beneficent voice. "We want to take you away from all this -"

"That's enough, Ralf," Kurran snapped. Well, he was only snippy because he didn't have the voice for announcements. He didn't have the looks either. I know I shouldn't be so conceited but honestly, between the three of us, if you were going to pick a god, you'd hardly go for a troglodyte like Goat, or a roughneck like Kurran. Well, I mean - would you?

"Opening the hatches," Goat muttered. None of us felt the need for caution. These people were obviously stuck in an evolutionary backwater. And we had the vaporite blasters.

"Who's taking Am?" Kurran said.

They both looked at me. "Oh, come on, boys - she's going to ruin my clothes."

"It's only a coverall," Goat grunted. "And you wanted to be the announcer."

I sighed, heavily. "Oh, very well. Come along, Am - but watch the hair."

Obediently, Am flopped onto my shoulder where she did a very good impression of nasal phlegm. "Coming, you two?"

"We're right behind you," Kurran said.

I think first impressions are awfully important, so I lifted my head, straightened my backbone and raised my chin before walking slowly and imperiously to the mid-hatch opening. Salty air drifted in and an incongruous smell of ripe apples. There was also quite a lot of coughing. Glad I'd had my inhibitor shots; these Nadd-Lini all sounded like they had bronchitis.

I held back, just inside the hatchway, then, with a show of grandeur, stepped forward to reveal myself. We were two metres above ground level and I looked down my nose to see the Nadd-Lini gathered in a bustling spread before me; perhaps two hundred of them, all gazing up in fear and wonder at the lord from the skies.

"Fear not, my people," I said in a whimsically quavering voice. I raised one hand, showing them my palm, as if to bless them, then activated the driftboard. A pleasant little addition, the anti-grav platter; after all, a god who clambered down a few metal steps or leapt to the ground and landed on his backside, was hardly credible.

The nearest of the Nadd-Lini, quite naturally, backed off. I needed to choose one, though and scanned the crowd for any sign of originality. Oh dear, they were all rather samey. Truth to tell - and I know I shouldn't say it - but they all looked identical to me…Oh, wait a minute - there was one, clambering in a seal-like fashion onto one of the purple boulders. I aimed the driftboard in his direction and he cowered and tried to slither back off, but before he'd got halfway down, Am slopped like cold porridge onto his head. Well, he had no shoulders to speak of. Lord knows what he'd look like in a cashmere greatcoat. The poor thing would have to stick to raglan sleeves.

The coughing broke out in a wild frenzy now as the Nadd-Lini watched the poor unfortunate of their number trying frantically to remove Am from his head. He'd never do it - not with arms as stunted as that. All of a sudden, the flipping and flailing stopped and a fishy expression - well, even more of a fishy expression - filled the chosen one's eyes. Good old Am. There were no language barriers for her.

The Nadd-Lini fell silent as their Chosen One lifted himself upright and seemed more at peace. He coughed - short, sharp coughs - and they all appeared spellbound. Yep. It was working perfectly. This was going to be a walkover.

The Chosen One stopped coughing and raised one stunted fin in imitation of my godlike blessing. Silence. Then an uncontrollable bout of wheezing and barking which made you just itch to get out your hanky and cover your face. But it was clear that this was actually their language, though how it developed, God only knows.

Goat and Kurran were peering cautiously out of the hatchway, no doubt wondering if this was the time they ought to make their appearance. I do wish Goat would dress for the occasion. Kurran was passable. At least his grey coveralls were clean. I shook my head, indicating that they should stay in the background. This was a heavy moment - the moment of instilling faith - and I didn't want those two cowboys to wreck it. Back on Kripios Two, Goat, in a premature display of wizardry, had taken to surfing the air currents on a driftboard and the moment had been ruined. We never did manage to take over Kripios Two, but looking on the bright side, we did manage to sell a hell of a lot of driftboards.

Ah. The crowd had all started to sway. Aligned like that, all looking up to their Chosen One, they looked like a bunch of sardines and I had to suppress a bit of a giggle.

Am came slithering back to me. "So what did you tell them?"

The usual. Oh - I called you Hok-hok, by the way. Ralf doesn't really work as a godlike name.

"And that does?"

They seem to like it. Anyway, this Chosen One is called A-hak-hak and his brain is pretty receptive, so I don't think we'll have any problems.

I sighed with satisfaction. It was nice when things went well. In a day or two, we'd unpack one of the Denner Domes and let them have a look inside. It ought to be pretty easy persuading them that they would be going to a supreme life in the sky. And once we'd cleared this area, we could message home and tell them to send the pioneer terrain morphologists and ecologists - start preparing this place.

It was all going swimmingly until the Chosen One dropped dead.

Death upsets me, it really does - even if it's the death of some fish-faced nonentity. One minute he was coughing away, his little arms waving in emphasis; the next he just keeled over. If he hadn't been standing on a huge rock at the time, it mightn't have been so bad. He burst open like a pasta asciutta meatball and a creamy substance poured out. I covered my mouth with my handkerchief and tried not to look as burbling white globules - their equivalent of seagulls, I suppose - floated swiftly to settle on the entrails. Don't know what they did. I couldn't see any mouths, so it might have been some kind of osmosis, but the cream slowly disappeared.

Well, there was hubbub for a while and I guess they were all pretty shocked. I looked round for signs of an assassin, but Am, clear-thinking as always, sidled onto the nearest fish-face's head and asked it directly. Its vacant eyes seemed to go milky and it stood rigid as she infused its brain with her thoughts.

"What happened?" I asked, when she returned.

Some sort of brain haemorrhage, from what I could gather. Anyway, never fear. I've told him he's the new Chosen One.

"Hope he does a better job than the last one," I grumbled.

Goat and Kurran were playing cards on a flat rock. "Don't know why we have to go through all this rigmarole every time," Goat grumbled, throwing down a two of spades. "Why don't we just scoop them up and whisk them off to the second moon? They wouldn't know what hit them and after a while, they wouldn't care."

"There's such a thing as ethics," I sniffed. "After all, this is their planet."

"Never bothered you before," Kurran grunted.

New Chosen One had clambered up onto the same big old rock that his predecessor had crashed down from. He was doing the same act, his stubby arms waving and gesticulating for all he was worth. And they were all spellbound. For a while.

"Shit," I muttered as his eyes flickered to the heavens and then he dropped backward like a stone. I didn't know where to look. All this carnage. And those scavenger things were sickening.

"You sure no-one's doing them in?" Goat asked.

"Why would they?"

He shrugged. "Jealousy. Opposition. Disbelief."

"But they don't have anything even remotely resembling a weapon. Those sticks they've got aren't even sharp. They must have to pound their prey to death."

"Maybe they're sending killer brain-waves," Kurran suggested.

"And how?" I said, stiffly. "Could they send killer brain-waves when they don't have brains?"

"They must have something," Kurran reasoned. "Otherwise, how could they have brain haemorrhages?"

I had to give him that. "Surely she would have noticed if something was amiss. You know how thorough she is."

"But she's not infallible," Kurran said.

"Have you known her make a mistake yet?" I snapped. These sudden deaths were making me rather tetchy and I'd started to develop a headache. "No - it's probably just coincidence."

Goat grunted. "You'd better appoint a new leader sharpish - they're all going to pieces down there."

A third unfortunate was chosen and Am infused its puny brain with the thoughts and ideals of its god - Hok-hok. Basically, it was what all religions taught; love your fellow fish, don't batter your wife - that kind of thing. But implanted in there was my eloquent description of life in heaven; a place of beauty and wonder, where there would be no more suffering. All we had to do then was show them the Denner Domes and we were quids in.

Or not.

I muttered a few choice words and threw down my hanky in a petulant fit. "If anyone wants me," I said. "I'll be in my cabin."

I could feel my lip quivering as I tried to explain it to Julian on the comscreen.

"Are you sure?" he said, his beautifully angular face crumpled slightly with concern. "That there isn't some dreadful plague going round? Something that's making these Naldini -"


He gave an impatient snort. "Whatever. I mean - I know you checked the place out, but you might have missed something."

"I doubt it," I said. "But the guys are working on it now. Goat's dissecting the bodies -" I gave a shudder. "Or what's left of them."

"And you're pretty sure no-one fired a weapon?"

I sighed, heavily. "If you could see them - that dull look in their eyes - you'd know there was nothing going on in there. They couldn't invent a pea-shooter. Honestly. Of all the dumb places in all the universe, we had to walk into -"

"So…they're a little slow?"

I pushed out my lips. "My dear, I've seen gnocchi with more brains."

A gentle smell that reminded me of lunch by the Seine one afternoon - at a little café called the Grenouille D'Or- drifted into my nostrils and I realised I hadn't eaten since this whole sorry business began.

"So." He raised one of his delightfully arched eyebrows. "You don't think that might be the answer?"

"Dear Lord, Jules, you're being rather obtuse."

"Well, they're dullards - you said it yourself. And here you are, trying to implant relatively complicated belief patterns into their brains. It's like trying to get Mavis Winster into a Gucci dress; keep forcing and pretty soon you have a handful of rags."

He might have a point. "So you're saying…their brains can't take in the information?"

"Seems logical to me," he said. "And from what you've told me, it's going to take a good million years before they're ready for anything more taxing than finding their dinner. Couldn't you just bundle the lot of them into the cargo transporter and get them out of the way?"

I sucked in a breath. "No can do, I'm afraid. Civil Humanities would come down on us like a ton of bricks. They've got to go voluntarily, or it's no dice."

"Then I'd cut my losses and come home. There are other planets."

The aroma was becoming more definable. An irresistible smell of lobster bisque, if I wasn't mistaken, but with an exciting touch of piquancy. "Perhaps you're right," I conceded. "It's just a shame -"

Someone knocked on the door. "Ralf?" It was Goat and there was a curious note of furtiveness in his voice. "Ralf - can I come in? Only - I've got something I want you to try."

And then it all dropped into place. All we had to do was keep feeding them the information. I mean, it wasn't our fault they couldn't take it in. Setting up the Denner Domes, transporting them to paradise and all that jazz was clearly a waste of time and effort. We might just as well leave the Nadd-Lini as they were. Yes, unfortunates would die - those whose brains just gave up the ghost - but Civil Humanities couldn't balk at that.

The rich lobstery smell filled my nostrils. Ah my. This planet was going to make the best seafood restaurant in the galaxy.

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