Paul Demetrious took the controls in the shuttle, with Jason beside him. Jason had learned to pilot various shuttles and other runabouts, as part of his overall training as an engineer.
Vidal and Vicky Scott sat behind them, and he could hear them talking softly to each other.
They all took a deep breath as the shuttle disengaged from the underside of the Diligent, and began its descent towards the band of cloud that obscured the surface of Sanctuaire.
Jason glanced up at the shuttle’s chronometer which was now calibrated to the planet’s time. Sanctuaire was larger than Earth, and revolved on its axis at a slower rate. Surprisingly the inhabitants, who had not been in contact with their fellow humans for untold centuries, calibrated their time in metric, as did many of the newly colonised planets. Therefore a standard day on Sanctuaire consisted of thirty metric hours each hour divided into units of a hundred, each unit divided into a hundred mini-units, being the equivalent of minutes and seconds on earth.
‘Vidal does the planet’s time differential affect you at all?’ Jason asked curiously.
‘I don’t expect there to be any problems. Why do you ask?’
‘Just interested.’ Jason admitted as he turned his attention back to the instruments laid out before him.
‘We might notice a slight increase in gravity when we land,’ Vicky Scott reminded them, ‘but it shouldn’t really affect us all that much, unless we need to run quickly up a steep hill.’
They all fell silent, till Jason broke it. ‘Shen, have you ever seen anything like that?’
The right side of the view screen showed the sea, a sparkling clear turquoise. While on the left, white sand and soaring cliffs held back the ocean from the beginning of the land mass, which consisted of tall elegant trees, and soft green fields. Some fields were obviously cultivated, some multi-coloured, which Jason took to be wild flowers.
The pastures rolled out like a continuous patchwork quilt to the horizon, against which they could just make out the violet haze of a mountain range. They were still too high up to make out any further detail, but everyone on the shuttle knew that they were looking down at a virtual paradise.
‘It’s beautiful.’ Vicky murmured as entranced as everyone else.
‘They’ve obviously never gone through centuries of War.’ Paul snorted derisively. ‘Or got our population either.’
‘What is the population of Sanctuaire? I don’t recall seeing mention of it anywhere.’ Jason enquired, his eyes glued to the screen.
‘Neither do I.’ Vidal stated at once. ‘However, even if they haven’t taken a census in recent years, they must have taken one at some time in the past. If so, we can extrapolate from that, but I would hazard a guess that the population will only be a million or so, if that.’
‘On a planet this size?’ His partner could not keep the awe out of his voice at this revelation. Earth was literally bursting at the seams. Which was why emigration to other planets was so encouraged by the authorities, and made as easy as possible for those willing to make the move.
‘Well they did start from a small base.’ Vidal observed prosaically. ‘And all things considered, if I am correct in my estimation, and I do say if, then they will have been pretty prolific in just a few centuries don’t you think? And from our point of view, considering the job we have ahead of us, the smaller the population the better.’
‘With such a small gene pool to start with, I would imagine that when we finally let the scientists and medics loose on the planet, they will have a field day identifying all the inherited diseases that must be prevalent here.’ Vicky murmured.
‘I’m not so sure about that, because if you recall, according to Captain van Tacx’ report, they informed him that they had very little disease or illness amongst their population.’ Vidal reminded them. ‘Which is why he was suited up whenever he went down to the surface. He didn’t want to infect either them or himself. Which is another reason why we, as well as Captain Zackary and his crew, all had to be so carefully screened before we were allowed to get on board the Diligent to come here.’
‘Don’t I know it. What with all those sterilisation and purification treatments and the damn injections! Hell by the time they’d finished with me I felt I had more medication in my veins than blood!’ Paul stated.
Levelling off, the small craft began to skim along the beach where the land touched the sea, keeping rigidly to the gently shelving coastline.
‘Looks like that’s our destination up ahead.’ Paul called out, and adjusted the height and speed of the shuttle as they approached a place that had quite obviously been cleared for their use as a landing pad.
‘It seems that they decided to keep us well clear of the populated areas.’ Vicky said, as Paul brought the small craft to rest with an expertise that Jason envied.
The Diligent’s Medical Officer had applied the spray skin to Vidal’s forearms before they had boarded the shuttle. Like the others, he also now wore a long sleeved shirt, although his sleeves were longer and the cuffs far looser, than those worn by the Gens. They each also wore a sleeveless vest on top of the shirt, and long pants that were pushed into stout walking boots.
When the four humans stepped out onto the surface of Sanctuaire for the first time, the warmth of the planet’s Sun caught them by surprise. For it was winter in this hemisphere.
‘I’m glad we decided not to wear the cold weather gear.’ Vicky said with a grin, as she ran a hand through her short hair and then used the same hand to fan herself vigorously, before she asked. ‘Did any of you bother to note the temperature down here on the planet?’
‘I simply heard the Captain say it was winter in this hemisphere, and I suppose like the others, I automatically assumed that that meant cold or at least cooler weather conditions.’ Jason replied.
Vidal frustrated, because for some inexplicable reason he was finding it impossible to zlin successfully, was gazing around him like the others. ‘We are being watched. From that small building.’ The Sime informed them. ‘There’s someone standing at the window. I suggest we walk around the other side of the shuttle, and wait in the shade. We’ll let them come to us. I would imagine they are studying us to see if we have any weapons with us. It’s a sensible precaution on their part.’
‘Yeah, especially as we don’t have any.’ Paul declared at once. ‘I said it was stupid not to bring weapons. It wouldn’t have hurt to carry just one sidearm. They can’t zlin us after all, so how would they know?’
‘Captain van Tacx had no weapons, and they did not attack him. In fact he left them on the best of terms.’ Vidal reminded him quietly.
‘Paul, just for once try not to be such a complete jackass!’ Vicky hissed, her lips stretched into a taut line of disapproval.
Jason’s green eyes caught Vidal’s dark ones, but neither man spoke.
‘ I recall reading in the Captain’s report, that the men down here wear thin flowing shirts and long loose pants. The women wear filmy robes, wrapped loosely around their bodies – van Tacx said they were vaguely reminiscent of the sari that some women wear in the hotter areas on Earth.’ Jason observed, just to fill in the awkward silence that had descended on the two TIS agents.
‘Yes I’ve got a couple myself, I wear them in the evenings.’ Vicky murmured, ‘and if it’s always as hot as this even in winter, then I can’t say I blame them. I just hope we’re finished here before summer arrives!’
‘Quiet everyone. Someone’s coming out.’ The Sime stated, and they all turned to face the small squat building.
Vidal signalled for Jason to fall back beside him, letting Vicky and Paul move slightly forward to greet the people who were approaching them.
The three men were all of medium height. They were dressed as expected, in loose fitting shirts and pants, all of which were in various shades of brown. Two had short brown hair, whilst the third was bald but wore a small brown skull cap. Whether this was to try and hide the fact that he had no hair, or to stop his head from becoming sunburnt, Jason could not tell. He also wondered if the colour brown was perhaps some sort of uniform worn by officials? He would doubtless find out in the fullness of time.
He pulled his wandering attention back to the present as he realised he was being greeted. Just in time he refrained from holding out his hand, as he remembered that it had stated in the Report, that the Sanctuairians did not make physical contact by shaking hands. Instead they placed both hands over their heart and bowed formally.
Jason, through his own inattention, had not heard their hosts names. He would have to ask Vidal later. He had no doubt at all that Mr. Perfect would not have missed a single word that was spoken. He bit back a grin, as he returned the approved greeting, and wondered if the no touching taboo, except with family members, was perhaps something that their ancestors had brought with them from Earth? Possibly something to do with the first appearance of humans with tentacles? It was one more thing he would like to discuss with Vidal.
His partner was obviously leaving the two TIS officers to do all the talking, not wishing to draw undue attention to himself, which was a wise precaution in the circumstances. At last, greetings over, Jason followed Vidal and the others across the cleared area.
‘What the shen!’ The words left Jason’s lips as a strange whirling cacophony of sound assaulted his ears. Like the others he looked up and searched for the source of the noise. Finding it, his eyes opened wide with surprise. A craft was approaching them. In appearance it looked like a dragonfly, and Jason knew it was something that had not flown on Earth for over a hundred and fifty years! Yet for the life of him he couldn’t remember what it was called. He glanced across at Vidal, his eyebrows raised in query.
‘Helicopter.’ The Channel mouthed back at him.
Jason nodded his thanks, as he also remembered that such machines had once been referred to as whirlibirds or choppers. He now knew why.
As the craft landed with its rotary blades spinning round and round, Jason was unprepared for the sudden rush of air that almost knocked him off his feet. Only Vidal’s augmented intervention saved him from landing on his backside. ‘Thanks,’ he gasped, grateful that none of the others appeared to have noticed his near mishap.
However, as he looked around him, he saw that the bald headed man had lost his skull cap, and was busy chasing after it. Finally he grabbed hold of it and rammed it back on his bald head. Somehow it made him feel better, knowing he was not the only one to be caught out.
The inside of the helicopter was very utilitarian, as no effort had been made for the comfort of either the crew or passengers. Jason decided it was little more than a basic military machine. Yet if they had such a stable society, and had never had a War. At least that was what he understood from Captain van Tacx’ Report. Then what did they need military craft for?
In the meantime Vidal was still having problems of his own. Even with the spray skin he should be able to zlin the ambient slightly, but at the moment, for some reason that he could not begin to fathom, he could not even do this. Why?
The noise level inside the machine was much louder than outside. This being so, conversation was impossible. So, like the others he contented himself with staring down at the countryside they were flying over, or watching the pilot as he manipulated the controls.
The last part of their journey was over a sprawling but spacious city. The buildings glittered white or pale gold in the sunlight, and appeared to be constructed of a type of stone that closely resembled marble, and each stood in it’s own grounds. Jason noticed that there were more open green spaces and trees here than he had ever seen in any urbanised area on Earth. Yet neither could he see any houses that were built close together, and might possibly denote poorer areas of the City. But then, with a large fertile planet, and such a small population, they could afford to spread out.
The machine suddenly dipped down low between a wide avenue of colourful trees. Their light green leaves being interspersed with clusters of pink and lilac flowers. The pilot finally brought the craft to rest outside a large two storey white structure, that on the upper floor had a wide terrace that appeared to run around the entire building.
Sweeping steps led the way inside, and Jason was too fascinated by his surroundings, to take any interest in the polite exchange of pleasantries that Vicky was conducting with their hosts. She was obviously a good diplomat, and he could see why she had been chosen by the TIS for this mission. Paul on the other hand stood at her side, and when he thought himself unobserved, he allowed a petulant expression to settle on his handsome face. What was the matter with the man?
As the party entered the building they stepped into a large airy reception area, and Jason realised it was a Hotel. Although he had never seen one quite as beautiful as this before. Again, the fabric of the building both inside and out looked like marble. The floor and walls glistening a pale gold, while the far wall cascaded with water, tinkling into a large pool edged with a multitude of green plants. Comfortable chairs and small tables were scattered around between banks of flowers. The reception desk was hidden from view behind a screen of ferns, that tumbled down from the high ceiling reminiscent of a growing emerald green curtain.
Jason sighed and admitted to himself – if the intention of the Sanctuairians was to impress their off-world visitors, then yes, he at least was very impressed.
They were obviously not expected to register their arrival, but were led straight to their accommodations. They each had their own room and bathroom, with interconnecting doors from one to the other. Their hosts had also given them a huge communal sitting area in the centre. Yet, it was not without relief that he watched the three men bow their way out, leaving them all alone once more.
Their luggage had arrived before them, and was stacked in the middle of the room.
Without a word, the four humans immediately looked around their own rooms, and then the large sitting area, automatically searching for any device that could either observe them physically, or overhear their conversations. Paul silently moved from room to room, using a small scanning tube to pick up any appliance that might be imbedded in the walls floor or ceiling, and therefore be undetectable to the human eye.
They did not really expect to find anything to worry them, but the procedure was part of their basic training, and came automatically to all of them.
Vidal tried to zlin yet again, but found the spray skin was still, for some unknown reason, proving a major hindrance, and finally gave up. He was also feeling both annoyed and irritated, and even a little low, as he had since they had arrived on the planet, which was most unusual for him.
‘I’d say it’s clean. If there is anything here now, then their technology would have to be far in advance of ours, and from what I’ve seen so far, I’d say they’re definitely a century or more behind us.’ Demetrious observed, as he put the device away.
‘I’m sure you’re correct, but we must be careful about making too many assumptions,’ Vidal warned. ‘We don’t have enough information yet to draw any firm conclusions about anything on this planet. Remember, that just because they still use flying machines that are obsolete on Earth, doesn’t mean that they haven’t made advances in other areas, that might far outstrip our own technological efforts.’
‘Have you been able to zlin anything about these Gens yet?’ Paul demanded brusquely.
‘No of course I haven’t!’ Vidal snapped the words out before he could stop himself. What the shen was wrong with him?
‘I don’t know about any of you, but on the way up here, I didn’t notice anyone but us.’ Vicky glanced around the group, as she tried to ease the tension. ‘I have a strong suspicion that apart from the staff, we’re the only visitors this hotel is entertaining at the moment.’
They all agreed with her assessment, as Vidal with a brief nod disappeared into his room.
‘Hell, does he always carry on like that? I only asked a simple question after all, he didn’t need to snap my head off.’ And Paul not waiting for Jason to reply, went on. ‘I’m going to take a shower,’ then he to disappeared into his room, and if the door had been made for slamming, he would have slammed it.
‘By the way Vicky - our three escorts - I didn’t catch their names? Nor anything else.’ He threw himself down onto a soft couch, and stretched out, and surreptitiously studied the woman from between half closed green eyes. She was beautiful, sleek and lithe, rather like an exotic black panther.
He also wondered if she and Paul were only partners, or if there was perhaps something more between them? Some men had all the luck. Now if Vidal were female and looked like that! Well he wouldn’t be sitting out here talking to Vicky. He chuckled wryly to himself, as she answered his question.
‘Would you believe Tom, Dick and..’
‘Harry?’ Jason finished with disbelief.
Vicky laughed out loud. ‘Unfortunately no, not Harry – Joshua. Sorry to disappoint you.’
‘I thought it was too good to be true. Do they have surnames?’
‘Yes. But because there were so few colonists to begin with, most people can of course claim to be kith and kin to everyone else, somewhere along the line. For example, our three hosts all share the same surname – Shelley. Although none of them are closely related by blood, possibly they are cousins, many times removed. ’ She shrugged. ‘They tell me that’s why they use only their first names.’
‘I wonder why they haven’t invented some new surnames over the centuries?’ Jason mused out loud.
‘From what I understand, they consider it an honour to be able to trace their name right back to the beginning – and of course, they can all claim that. I suppose it’s to do with prestige. We do the same thing on Earth, in a limited way, don’t we? After all there are a lot of Farrises around, not only on Earth but on other planets too. And most of them, so that they wont lose the Farris name by marriage, will even go so far as to make it double-barrelled. Can you imagine any of them being willing to change their surname? And they’re not the only ones either.’
‘Yes I see your point. Although Vidal would probably say that they do that for medical purposes, not for any cachet it might bring. Did you learn anything more interesting? From where I stood, you seemed to be having quite a conversation with them.’
‘Not really, it was mostly small talk. I kept trying to turn it to more relevant issues, but no joy. I think it’s a social thing. Perhaps they consider it impolite to discuss important business matters too soon – who knows? I suppose we’ll just have to bide our time, and hope to make more progress later.’
‘I think I’ll go and have a few words with Vidal. I don’t know why he spoke to Paul like that. I’m usually the uncivilised one, not him.’ He walked to the door. ‘And he should have been able to tell something through that spray skin, ‘cause he’s very sensitive, even for a First.’
‘I’m going to follow my partner’s example and take a long shower. I think we all need to cool off.’ Vicky walked towards her room, and then turned. ‘By the way, tell Vidal they’re expecting all of us to have dinner tonight - would you believe - with members of the Government, no less?’
‘In other words an evening of total boredom! Not counting touching the forelocks I suppose.’ Jason sighed dramatically.
She laughed. ‘Agreed, but at least they’re coming here. Even so we’d better put on a good show - best bib and tucker. Oh and tell Vidal not to get his hopes up. I doubt we’ll get around to talking about anything really important tonight. But we may be allowed to meet the scientists and academics tomorrow, and can start making some headway.’
Jason entered his partner’s room with a brief knock, knowing the Channel would be expecting him. He was standing on the balcony that ran around the outside of the hotel, and onto which every room opened. He was leaning against the balustrade, and did not turn as the Gen joined him. In a few brief sentences Jason informed him of what Vicky had said, then studied Vidal closely.
‘You’re looking a bit edgy, are you feeling alright?’ Jason asked as he concentrated and narrowed his attention on his partner. Feeling gratified when he saw him begin to relax visibly.
He had learned quite a lot in the three years they had now been together. Although he felt sure he would never be as good a companion as Gavin had been. For one thing he tended to forget far too many of the small important details that helped to make the Channels life bearable, and on which he should be able to rely on his Companion. Not that he didn’t try to remember, because he did, and he was sure he was slowly but surely becoming slightly more responsible.
‘Thank’s. I really hate wearing this skin! And no, it doesn’t hurt. It’s just that I feel so handicapped with it on. At the moment, more so than usual.’
‘Well, that’s understandable,’ Jason said gently.
‘Shen it. I’m not a child! You don’t have to treat me with kid gloves you know.’ Vidal stalked back into the room and poured himself a glass of cold water from the drinking fountain in the bathroom.
‘Right, well I think I’ll follow the others and have a shower.’ Jason walked to the interconnecting door, and then paused, his back to the room. ‘I’m sorry if I’ve upset you – again. I do try, but I never seem to get it right do I?’
He stood outside the closed door for a few moments a frown on his handsome face. For some reason his partner was obviously feeling far more agitated than usual, and he could only assume it had something to do with the spray skin he was being forced to wear. Although as far as we was aware, Vidal had never had many problems with it in the past. However, further questions would have to wait for a more suitable time.
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