The sun rose on the day I was to leave OLtic.
Well, I was pretty sure it was the day, although naturally I hadn't received official notification or anything. It was the day I thought I'd been told I should leave, about five and a half months earlier, anyway.
I did rather hope that the HA would throw some sort of a party to mark my departure, either to wish me well or to celebrate, but they didn't really seem to care enough either way. It did occur to me that they were so unused to people actually leaving their village permanently, never to return, that they hadn't developed any kind of mechanism for saying lasting goodbyes. However, I had to accept that my fieldwork was now at an end, so whatever their reason was for not having farewell parties, it was no longer my concern.
"I'm going, now," I said to Lakka, through the open door of his hut.
"You're not coming back?"
"No, I'm going forever this time. I just wanted to thank you, and through you all of the villagers, for putting up with me these past few months."
"So the hut's mine, now, is it?" His gleeful eyes flitted over my shoulder in the building's general direction.
"Well, once I pick up my stuff and set off, yes." Well I mean, it's only polite to wait until the body is cold before you rob the grave...
"So later today then?" He seemed a little disappointed.
"Just as soon as I find SKUP." I was having to take SKUP with me all the way to MEKTO, because that was the only way he could recover the motorbike.
"I think he's having unconventional sex with SHApiNA in her mother's hut," advised Lakka. "At least he was last time I looked."
"Well so long as he can sit down on the seat of my bike, I don't really care. I'll go and retrieve him, thanks."
That was about as emotional as it got; no more than if I were going to MIkuMIku for the day.
SKUP was rather glad to be rescued from SHApiNA's charms, although he did try to sell me some kind of basket made out of rushes that she had made. Regrettably, I was forbidden to take back to Earth any souvenirs, so I turned the offer down.
Well, actually I could easily have bought the basket and chucked it away somewhere between here and the bubble, but I decided against doing so because if I had bought it then half the population of OLtic would have miraculously appeared and tried to persuade me to buy their marvellous handicrafts, too.
So it was that I sat SKUP on the back of my Mullinger Mark III Ox, checked that the panniers were still secure after having done so, and started up the engine. Dirt and mud flew into the air; I steered my trusty vehicle slowly across the village circle towards the track that would eventually lead me out of the HA lands toward MIkuMIku.
Just before passing the final hut, I stopped for a moment and looked back at the village that had been my home for the past few months. It didn't really look any different from how it had when I arrived, except perhaps for the deep ruts from motorcycle wheels that weren't there before. I was sad in a way to be leaving people I regarded as friends, especially as I now knew so much more about their ways. However, I was also conscious that I didn't really belong among them, and that home for me was really a modest, end-of-terrace house in Cambridge, England, Earth.
"I'll drive if you've forgotten how," said SKUP, not completely sarcastically.
I didn't reply; I just opened the throttle slowly, pulled away, and said farewell to OLtic forever.
SKUP didn't want to hang around in MIkuMIku too long in case LiMInador showed up and wanted him to provide her with that which he had just exhausted his supplies of in the company of SHApiNA. I therefore left him waiting nervously within the walls of the fort as I went indoors to to pick up my human-friendly clothes and say my goodbyes to Mike and Margaret Froggy.
I was rather taken aback to find that Mike's office was bare, save for his desk, chair and telephone. All his personal effects had been removed. Furthermore, Mike wasn't there.
An awful feeling of dread seized me. Had Mike's detective work on my behalf been discovered by his superiors? Well of course, it had been foolish to assume that they wouldn't find out; I'd rather hoped that they weren't going to punish him, though.
I opened the door that led to the Commanding Officer's Private Quarters, ie. where Mike and Margaret lived. I was a little relieved to hear Margaret's voice as I approached; at least that meant they hadn't gone before I could say goodbye.
"No, no, you silly man," Margaret was saying, although in fondness rather than annoyance. "You have to wrap up the pictures individually, not all together."
A harassed-looking Mike glanced up and saw me. "Hello, Richard!" he said, evidently pleased to be spared for the moment further instructions on the art of wrapping wall hangings.
"I can't stay long, I have SKUP sitting outside on the motorbike hiding from one of his betrotheds. I just popped in to say farewell, but by the looks of things I'm not the only person to leaving."
"That's right," said Margaret, taking Mike's arm, proudly. "Mike has been promoted to Senior Commanding Officer."
"Hey, Mike! That's great news! Congratulations!"
"It's not official yet, but a friend from my academy days did the paperwork. The formal letter should arrive in two or three days' time."
"Looks like you needed the warning, with all this packing. Where are they posting you?"
"Froggytown - it's where I was born and raised."
"You don't say? Well that's good, isn't it?"
"Good? Good? It's fantastic! They're building a new fort there, to be permanently manned with 1200 mixed troops, and I'm who they're putting in charge of it all."
"He's worked so hard, he deserves it," added Margaret.
"But what about the telephone calls you made for me? Didn't they hurt your chances?"
"To be honest," said Mike, "they probably helped. Apparently, the army rates a sense of justice higher than it does blind loyalty, and it rates the courage to flout orders on the basis of principle even higher. In other words, they think I did the right thing."
"Well all I can say is that I'm very happy for you both. I - "
A strange wailing was coming from the parade ground.
"Sounds like LiMInador has caught up with SKUP," said Margaret. She looked through the window. "Yes, she's beating him with something long and made of metal." There was a sudden crash. "No, I'm mistaken, it was glass."
"I'd better go and save him," I said. "Oh, I have a gift for you to say thanks for the phone calls. It's not much, but it might come in handy if you're ever in serious pain and can't get to a doctor." I took a bottle from my pocket and handed it to Mike.
He read the handwritten label I'd stuck on it. "HA Whisky. Thank you! I shall keep this well away from naked flames until the day comes when I need to launch a ship."
"He doesn't mean it," said Margaret. "He'll try some, but I'll make him water it down a little first for safety."
Water and HA whisky? I wondered if the combination had ever been even contemplated before.
Well, you can't stop the march of progress...
With a battered SKUP on the back of the bike, I set off in the direction of MEKTO. I'd never really got acquainted with MIkuMIku and its environs, but Mike and Margaret had become good friends. I doubted that I'd ever see either one of them again, but I felt glad to have known them, and even gladder that Mike hadn't suffered because of the favour I asked him to do for me. However, I was gladdest of all because I had remembered to pick up my proper clothes before I left, as otherwise I'd have been stuck in my leathers or my HA outfit until I could reach a suitable boutique. Well, just my leathers, really; my HA clothes were so alive with life forms that if I'd taken them off at night and left them by the bed they'd have scampered off on their own.
The drive to MEKTO was too long to make in one go, especially with a beaten-up pinion passenger behind me, so we stopped at a road-side inn for the night. SKUP was a little wary of going inside, acutely aware that the nearer we got to MEKTO the more sophisticated the people became. However, when I pointed out to him the fact that he was studying for a qualification in Law, and that this made him fairly sophisticated too, he yielded a little. When I further mentioned that I'd stayed at this inn before and it served seven different varieties of whisky, it was all I could do to stop him climbing in through a window instead of walking round the front to use the conventional entrance.
"This will all be on expenses, won't it?" he asked, cautiously.
When I confirmed that it was, his reaction was that of someone who has just won the lottery.
I checked in for two rooms, and pointed SKUP out to the receptionist so that she'd know where to put him when he was later handed in to Lost Property.
SKUP spent most of the remainder of the journey to MEKTO asleep. I have no idea how he always avoided falling off the back of my motorbike when in such a state, but he did. Perhaps his buttocks have an automatic gripping action which circumvents the need for conscious control, like birds have to stop them tumbling out of trees when they take 40 winks? It's just another of life's great mysteries.
On the way, I spotted a police officer riding a Mullinger Mark III Ox just like mine (although marginally cleaner because it had only driven across roads, not fields that were pretending to be roads). Pedestrians were scattering as he rode towards them, so obviously he'd just got it and was testing it out, but still I felt a small surge of pride to know that the governor had acted upon my suggestion to equip his force with agricultural cycles. If only I'd bought shares in Mullinger first.
When we got nearer to the centre of MEKTO, I decided to rouse SKUP so that he could memorise the route to take to get him out of the city.
SKUP was utterly astonished with what he saw.
"All those buildings! All those people!"
"And all these roads, SKUP. Keep an eye on where we're going or you won't be able to get back."
"What does everyone do? What does everyone eat?"
"Very little, and anything that is probably dead."
"This is beyond belief! I never imagined that a place could be so big!"
"Scrab is bigger, and New Dulwich is bigger still. On Earth, we have cities with 30,000,000 inhabitants!"
"How do you know?"
"How do I know what?"
"That there are 30,000,000 inhabitants? Surely it would take so long to count them that some would die and others would be born while you were doing it."
"On Earth, we have cities with the order of 30,000,000 inhabitants."
"Ah, I see. Why didn't you say so the first time?"
I've had back-seat drivers in my car before, but I've never had a back-seat describer. SKUP spent the rest of the ride pointing out all the amazing things he could see, like umbrellas, news stands, traffic lights, apartment blocks, signs that said "Eat Here", women wearing lipstick, camera shops, bananas, curtains, advertisements for pens... You get the idea, I'm sure. By the time I arrived at my customary hotel I was thoroughly exhausted.
"Are you certain you don't want to stay the night?" I asked, after showing him my swish room. I was rather worried that the vast quantity of alcohol SKUP had consumed the evening before might have lessened his capacity to control a motorbike below even the meagre level it was under normal conditions.
"I must seek out some of that red stuff that women put on their lips, then get back to LiMInador. She will stop hitting me if I have a gift for her."
"Do you have any money?" I asked, foolishly.
"No," replied SKUP, instinctively, whether he had or he hadn't.
I sighed, and gave him ten sovereigns. "This is a lot of money," I told him. "It will buy much, much more than just a lipstick. You can have it only if you promise not to drink any more whisky between now and MIkuMIku."
I could tell by SKUP's expression that it was a close call, but he finally accepted the coins.
"Now if you get lost, head North. If you can't see the sun to figure out which was is North, ask a policeman. If you can't find a policeman, keep driving on the road in as straight a line as possible until the houses run out, and then you'll be able to see the sun. Got that?"
"And you'll remember to stay on the left of the road, and stop when you see those lights on poles flashing red?"
"And you really will stay off the whisky whenever you're going to use the motorbike?"
"You'll do more than try..." I used my sternest voice.
He sighed. "I'll do more than try..."
"Good!" I smiled. "Well, SKUP, it's been a pleasure knowing you. You've been not only an excellent assistant, but also a good friend. I'm going to miss you."
"One day, I hope I will come to Earth and visit you. If I don't like being a famous lawyer, perhaps I might become a famous anthropologist instead. Who knows?"
"Who knows indeed." So long as I have enough warning and can book myself a ticket to the Moon in advance of his arrival.
With a heavy heart, I handed him the keys to my beloved motorbike. He took them, grinned manically, and turned to go.
"No! Wait!" I suddenly remembered.
"The goggles! And the leather clothes!" He slapped his forehead.
"What? Oh, yes, they're in the panniers. No, I meant to ask you something!"
He sighed. "Very well, RICHard, I'll answer you one last question..."
"REKchit? The food, REKchit?"
"Yes, that REKchit."
He frowned in a puzzled sort of way. "Well don't you know? You've eaten it almost every day since I met you."
"Yes, but I thought that if I knew what it was I might not want to eat it."
"Humans..." He shrugged. "REKchit is crushed bird."
Erk! "Bird? What sort of bird?"
"Just bird. Whatever sort happens to get itself caught."
Crushed bird: well, on the whole I'm glad I didn't know that. "Hang on, though, if it's crushed bird then how come I never saw any feathers or heads or feet?"
SKUP slapped himself on the forehead again in further disbelief. "RICHard, if you'd told me you didn't mind paying extra, of course I could have got you the best bits..."
The next day, I was to attend the Governor's Office to find out how exactly I was getting back to New Dulwich and thence to Earth. I didn't hold out much hope of there being any travel arrangements actually arranged, but then they probably wouldn't be needed anyway after the governor heard what I planned to say to him...
I breakfasted on something brown and furry, with something black and runny as a kind of sauce, then made my way leisurely to the administrative building which by this time I knew so well.
I opened the door, strode up to the front desk, and was confronted by a different secretary.
She looked in her drawer. "Go away," she said.
"You're new here, aren't you?" I asked.
She looked in her drawer again. "Go away," she repeated.
"Ah, of course, the other receptionist was only temporary. You must be a permanent one."
This time my words were met by a blank stare.
"I'll find the governor myself..."
GAEva, the governor's secretary, saw me coming and, deciding that my arrival would doubtless presage work, quickly grabbed her coat and hurried past me for the stairs.
The governor's door was open, but the governor wasn't in his office. I heard some muffled cursing coming from further down the corridor, and found him on his knees trying to extract a document from a cabinet that GAEva had meticulously arranged so that no two files which could possibly be considered as related were within 20 or so spaces of one another.
"Excuse me," I began.
The governor looked up, and banged his head on an upper drawer of the cabinet which had silently slid open (another of GAEva's booby-traps). He pushed it shut with an elbow while he straightened his glasses.
"Dr Bartle," he smiled, "how good to see you. Just one moment..." He got to his feet and kicked the lower drawer of the cabinet shut with an almighty thud. The top drawer slid open again.
"A little stiff, is it?" I asked.
"No, just fun to kick. Now what can I do for you?"
"Well I'm ostensibly here to find out about my travel arrangements to New Dulwich, but I'm thoroughly aware of how futile that's likely to be."
"No, no, that's where you're wrong. The very day you left here for the HA I instructed GAEva to make arrangements for your return, and only last week she actually completed them. I've no idea where she left the tickets, unless..." He reached inside a tray. "Aha! Yes, she put them where she thought I wouldn't expect them to be!"
"Namely, where they were supposed to be?"
"Precisely! Well, here you are then." He examined the itinerary. "Looks like a train to Scrab, a direct flight to Town of Lain, and another train across Kingsland to New Dulwich. Oh, but she's booked you into the Hadean, I expect that's a mistake."
"It's where I stayed last time I was in the city."
"Yes, but that was six months ago, it's getting on for Winter now. Still, if you're happy, I'm happy. There'll be someone there later to meet you, anyway." He held out the papers for me.
"Before I take those, I think there's something I should tell you..."
"Really? And what's that?" He seemed surprised.
"Well I know what all this is about."
"What all what is about?"
I took a deep breath. "I know that you sent me to the HA not so that I could study them, but so you could study me."
"And what makes you think that?"
"Do I really need to explain? I know you know what I'm talking about, because Officer Froggy in MIkuMIku is being promoted due to his actions on my behalf concerning the matter."
"He is? But that's not official until next week!"
"Officer Froggy is a popular man; someone has tipped him off already."
"Oh. Well that rather spoils things, doesn't it?" Sighing, he sat down on a desk.
"It certainly does. Am I the only visitor from Earth to have figured things out?"
"As far as I know, yes, although of course half of you were put on genuine assignments as a sort of control, to distract your debriefers."
"Very professional. How did we victims perform?"
"You all passed marvellously well. The aurochs are saved, the halflings have their dam, the Stones of Drubh Hó are back in the Thane's Hall, and an innocent man has been saved from a stoning."
"There's just the one problem then..."
"Yes, you; but a decision on that has already been made."
I smiled. "Then you're going to let me go home."
I nodded. "You are, because fundamentally you're decent people here. Because of that, you won't have me killed in an accident, or maroon me on this planet, or threaten to bomb OLtic if I breathe a word. What's more, you know from the fact that I've passed your stupid morality test that I'm not going to go back to Earth and tell the Americans that you set everyone up."
"That's exactly what we surmised, yes, and I'm happy to report that your telling me that you knew of our experiment is further confirmation that our decision is the right one."
"I'm glad to hear it. One things which puzzles me, though, is why that time did you have GAEva speak to me in Orcish I could understand?"
"Oh, that was her idea; we thought that if we could help you tie up your research into the HA's past, you might finally begin looking at their present and find the radioactive mountain you were supposed to find."
"I see. As it happens, I also found out that you were wrong about the history of the HA, although you'll have to read my ethnology for the full story."
"I'll look forward to it."
I folded my arms. "So, it seems everything is fine, then."
"So it does. Care for a cup of tea?" He turned for the door.
I didn't move. "However, it's not quite good enough..."
The governor stopped. "Go on," he said, frowning.
"I may be morally obliged to keep quiet about the goings on here during the past six months, but you are morally obliged to compensate me for keeping you out of trouble."
"Compensate you? In what way? Isn't allowing you back to Earth sufficient?"
"No it isn't! That's something I was due by right anyway. I have a different form of compensation in mind."
"What would that be, then?" he asked.
I told him.
The governor smiled. "119 days; you really have been living among the orcs, haven't you? Yes, I think we can arrange for you to be compensated in that manner."
How civilised these people are!
The night-time train journey to Scrab was even better than I remembered it the first time, but then the first time I hadn't been living in a HA hut for the preceding six months. The flight from Scrab to Town of Lain took nine hours, but I was travelling in an expensive seat with free wine so I didn't mind. Upon landing, I learned that I had not entirely absorbed Virginian culture, squirming as I did with embarrassment as my fellow passengers barracked the pilot for daring to bounce the landing gear as the plane touched down.
Town of Lain is on the other side of Kingsland to New Dulwich, although I didn't get to see much of it because it was dark again when I arrived. A taxi driven by a dwarf with blocks of wood on his feet took me to the station, and there I boarded the train.
This time I was rather disappointed that I was on a sleeper, because it meant I wouldn't be able to experience the journey at supersonic speeds. Still, I was rather tired, and felt I ought to catch some sleep before I got jet lag, so I nodded off.
I've no idea how long I slept, because my watch was once again completely intoxicated by magnetic fields. All I remember is waking up with a jolt as the vehicle pulled to a halt in New Dulwich and my suitcase fell from the luggage rack, striking me in the groin.
Well, at least this meant I didn't fall straight back to sleep; even agony can be useful sometimes.
I checked in at the Hadean, but found it curiously empty despite its reputation as one of New Dulwich's premier hotels. I put this down to the dwindling tourist trade in Winter, and went to my room.
I decided I needed a shower.
Well, my room didn't have a shower, but it did have a great big bath, so I used that instead. All was going well, and I was just about to dismantle a piece of soap to see whether it did indeed have an air bubble inside it to make it float when suddenly I began to feel hot.
I looked to see that I'd turned the water off, and I had, but the room was filling up with steam at an alarming rate. I hastily got out of the bath, which was by now becoming a sauna, and I grabbed a towel to cover that part of me I didn't wish people to see1. I staggered to the door, only to find that the handle was searingly hot, but somehow, with the aid of a face cloth, I managed to open it.
Outside my room, everything was just as bad.
I returned inside, shut the door, and staggered blindly for the balcony window. I lost my towel, but I didn't care, I needed both hands to feel my way around anyway. I was dripping with sweat, and the hairs on my arms felt like they were being singed off with a steam iron. Eventually, after cracking my shin painfully on the bed, I found a glass door, fumbled with the catch, then threw it open.
I stepped out onto the balcony and gulped in as much of the atmosphere as my lungs would allow. The relief! That was a close one! But what had caused it?
As the steam gradually dissipated, I began to cool down, and became aware of a small group of hotel maids assembled in the courtyard below.
"Hey, what happened?" I yelled down to them.
"Nothing exciting," one shouted back. "At least, it doesn't look like you found it exciting!"
Ah, yes, I'd lost my towel, hadn't I...
The maids were all giggling, so I decided that it probably wasn't worth trying to call out a witty riposte2; besides, they were probably trying to get a rise out of me.
Instead, I went inside, wringed out my clothes, put them on, and marched down to the lobby.
A decidedly damp-looking receptionist was sitting there.
"You," she said, "are about to ask me what just happened."
"What," I said, "just happened?"
"The hotel is built above hot springs. These provide the water for the swimming pool and the central heating system. However, in late Autumn and early Winter, the springs can occasionally release steam super-heated under pressure."
"And this was just such an occasion?"
I wasn't too pleased to be informed of this after having experienced the phenomenon. "So why didn't you tell me? Why aren't there signs on the walls warning that it might happen? One moment I was having a nice, relaxing bath, and the next it was as hot as - "
"As Hell, yes, I know. That's why they call this place the Hadean, you daft man. Now please go away, I'd rather like to sob if that's alright with you."
After lunch, I was going through my notes meticulously evaporating off the excess condensation with a hair-drier when there was a knock at my door. I opened it to find the smartly-dressed figure of Peter Janus smiling at me.
"Hello, Peter! Nice to see you! Have you married that woman from Oxford yet?"
Peter's smile froze. "She has helped me understand why it is that on your world so many people seem to need therapy," he replied.
"Never mind, it won't be long now before she's gone from your life forever. You have come to tell me when we're leaving for the bubble, I take it?"
"Tomorrow," he replied, slightly happier at the thought that he would thereafter be separated from his nemesis by a good few million light years. "I'll send a taxi to take you to the airport; we have now built a helicopter landing pad on our docking station, so you won't have to go there by ship this time."
"Helicopter? That's an Earth English word, isn't it? You don't have helicopters on Virginia."
"We do now," he answered, proudly. "We observed the general principles when the Americans attacked New Dulwich using them, although there wasn't much wreckage after we shot them down so our versions aren't quite perfect yet. They work, though."
"I see. Well, so long as there's no wreckage at all this time, I'll be happy." Mind you, it would be rather a good way to dispose of me if the authorities overruled the governor of MEKTO concerning my compensation.
"I'll sit you next to Oxford Woman. That way, if there is a malfunction you won't really mind dying anyway."
I've never flown in a helicopter before, so I was quite looking forward to the experience. However, once airborne the only experience I really wanted was that of coming to rest safely on a stable surface. There was a marvellous aerial view of New Dulwich as we took off, but unfortunately my lunch decided it wanted to come up for a peep, too. Earth's helicopters doubtless have the benefit of computerised gyroscopic dampers to make every moment in the air a moment to treasure, but Virginia's compress two weeks' worth of travel sickness into two hours.
Oh well, at least it meant that Oxford Woman didn't feel able to indulge in conversation, and therefore my ego was still intact after the flight even if my stomach wasn't.
When we finally arrived at the docking station, the relief was tangible. Our pilot had long given up snarling contemptuously at us every time someone was wimpish enough to vomit out of the door, so he didn't make any effort to land smoothly; he knew we were in no fit state to boo him.
We descended shakily down the steps which had thoughtfully been provided for us, and were greeted by the familiar figure of Officer Jute.
"Did you have a pleasant flight?" she asked, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary splattered along the side of the aircraft.
"I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it..." I replied.
"Oh, it wasn't all that bad," chipped in Oxford Woman. "I found it quite refreshing to throw up something that didn't contain feathers or fur for a change."
"Feathers? You should have stayed with the REKchit like me. The worst I ever got was a beak."
"REKchit? That vile stuff? I always paid the extra, for the bits that I could tell what they were."
"This way, please," said Officer Jute. "I'm afraid we have some formalities to put you through before you can return to Earth."
"Damn it!" said Oxford Woman. "She wants the money back! And there was I, hoping to retire here and live in luxury for the rest of my days."
"We'll need you to sign an account release form, yes," said Officer Jute. "We'll also have to search you, in case any of you are thinking of smuggling anything back to Earth."
Oxford Woman gave a sort of bitter, half-strangled laugh that sounded very unlike her.
Officer Jute ignored it. "In deference to your standards of modesty, we shall of course be conducting the searches in private, although you can request an observer from Earth if you desire. You can also choose whether you want a man or a woman to do the searching."
"Do I get to choose which woman?" I asked.
"No, I'm afraid not."
"In that case, I'll have a man." Well, worth a try.
The search wasn't too embarrassing; I was more worried about the fact that the Virginians treated X-rays as no more dangerous than sunlight than I was any sniggers connected with my naked form. It was silly of me, of course; I'd already had a far more dangerous dose of death rays in the HAIKAG's cave, so this snivelling little amount was as nothing to me.
After around two hours, I was led down a long corridor that I vaguely recognised, which ended in a much larger room with tables, chairs and a buffet. There were perhaps a dozen or more of my American colleagues also there, tucking into various salads and things. I went for a beef sandwich, on the basis that it was the last one I was ever going to have which definitely wasn't going to give me Mad Cow Disease, although ordinarily I didn't actually like the things.
Oxford Woman arrived a few minutes later, the cut lip of the orderly accompanying her testifying to the fact that women's body searches are a tad more intimate than men's. She ladled herself a bowl of soup, looked around for the other anthropologist from Oxford, and, noting that she wasn't present, wandered over to the only other English person in the room: me.
"So," I greeted her. "Did anything interesting happen?"
"The next time that nurse sticks her fingers where they weren't meant to go, I think she'll remove her rings first."
"Ah, no, I didn't mean just now, I meant your fieldwork. How did it go?"
"I'd rather not talk about it..."
Right: so that meant she was probably one of the people who had been tested, then.
"Mine was fairly mundane3, although the HA turned out to be a lot more interesting than I'd first supposed. I wish they'd washed more; well, I wish they'd washed at all, really."
Oxford Woman simply shrugged, and began to play idly with her soup.
I got the feeling that she wanted to tell someone her story. The next person she would speak to at a personal level after me was very likely to be an interrogator on the Earth side of the bubble, in which case they might suspect from what she said that she'd been set up. I decided, therefore, that I ought to make some effort to try to find out what had happened myself, and do my bit for preserving Virginia's reputation.
"I guess I was lucky in that I found a good assistant, leastwise he told me often enough that he was a good assistant. How about you? Did yours speak English?"
"Oh, yes," she smiled, almost sadly. "He spoke English..."
I knew at this point that I was onto something; but what?
"And the food, what was that like, apart from the feathers? My lot seemed to think goat's penis was the height of culinary excellence."
She was staring into her soup, wistfully. "Goat's, yes..." She looked up. "You're trying to get something out of me, aren't you?"
"Yes, you are. Normally, you would have phrased your statement so you could anecdotalise it. You'd have said something like, `One of my lot gave me a goat's penis to eat. What a prick!'"
"I would have?"
"Yes, you would have. But you didn't. You deliberately brought up penises - "
"I raised the subject?"
"Do you have to?" She shook her head, and continued. "You deliberately brought up penises hoping that I would have something to say about them."
"Well, OK, I confess: I did."
"Ha! I thought as much! Well you're not in luck, sonny boy: I'm keeping my story to myself."
I must admit that I was not exactly happy at having the veil ripped so expertly from my scheme. Still, two can play at that game.
"Very well," I said. "Since you appear to delight in revealing what people are trying to hide, I'll perform the same service for you. I think you selflessly got yourself pregnant to save somebody - I guess your assistant - from an undeserved fate, and when he was safe you then you chose to have an abortion because otherwise you would never have been allowed back on Earth. And now you feel guilty, guilty, guilty, and you're going to burst into tears any - "
She burst into tears.
Well, she didn't so much burst into them as they burst out of her. I remember thinking that I'd never considered that there might be such things as projectile tears before, as she put her arms around my neck and buried her face in my jacket.
I don't know if you've ever had a woman you don't particularly like blubbing uncontrollably onto your shoulder, but in case you haven't I can tell you one thing about the experience for certain: when she's finished, you no longer don't particularly like her.
"What's your name?" I asked, as she accepted my offer of a handkerchief.
"Karen," she said, wiping her eyes. "I must apologise, I feel such a fool. In front of all these people."
I glanced about. Everyone was thoroughly engrossed in not looking like they were watching. "It's OK, they're Americans. This sort of thing happens all the time in restaurants where they come from."
"I expect you're right. It's just as well I chose the onion soup, really, they'll simply assume it was too strong."
"Karen, you're an alright person," I said, smiling.
She blushed, noticeably, even though her face was already red from crying. "That's one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me," she replied.
The journey through the bubble was something of an anticlimax. Yes, I know, that's not what you want to be told at the end of a book, but it was. Behind me was six months in the most extraordinary place I'd ever been; ahead of me was a lifetime of banality. I could sense that the others felt the same way; we all had that same, mild depression that comes when a new mind-set has to be swapped out, to be replaced by an old, familiar, tired one. I used to get it after two weeks of holiday at my gran's when I was a child; now I recognised the feeling again.
At the Earthward end of the pontoon bridge, I turned and looked back. The bobbing walkway stretched gently away for nearly 200 metres, ending suddenly and abruptly with only open sea beyond.
Well, that was that, then. I took my final few paces to the American docking station, and stepped onto the ramp.
For administrative purposes (always a portent of Something Awful), the original set of anthropologists had been split in two. We comprised the first subset, and our colleagues (who would be arriving a few days later) comprised the second.
Lieutenant Lickit was there to greet us, although both Karen and I immediately noticed that her name badge now read Lickit-Jaeger. So, she'd cunningly married in order to avoid tempting passing strangers to lay tongue on her tunic.
"Welcome back to Earth," she announced to everyone, breezily. "I trust your stay in Virginia was a pleasant one?"
"That's on Virginia, Tammy-Sue," shouted Karen. "Fire your speech-writer."
Lieutenant Lickit-Jaeger glared at her a moment, but finding that no put-down came immediately to mind decided that her best course of action was to carry on as if nothing had happened. "If you'll just follow me, ladies and gentlemen..."
"That's women and men," snorted one of the American women.
"Well if you'll just follow me anyway, we have one or two formalities to go through and then tomorrow we can fly you out of here."
"They don't expect us to have our passports with us, do they?" murmured Karen.
"No, I think they want to interview us."
"Interview us? Oh that really is the limit! I'm going to spend the next two months writing an ethnology, and they want to ask me about it all first? What if I refuse?"
I shrugged. "They'll withdraw our cable channel privileges tonight and not let us put maple syrup on our hash browns at breakfast."
Our party was led up a flight of steps and across a precarious gangway to a waiting ship. Once aboard, we were marshalled into a conference room of some kind where a group of assorted military personnel was socialising with itself.
"All present and correct, sir!" said Tammy-Sue, saluting.
The group broke up, scattering debriefers in all directions.
A smiling young man in an army captain's uniform approached Karen and I. "Hello," he said, "I'm Captain Schwarz."
"Did you see that?" said Karen. "He told us his name without looking at his badge. Amazing..."
"You two must be our guests from England. If you'd care to come with me, I'd just like a chat with you about your stay in Virginia."
"That's on Virginia! It's a planet, not a state. You don't say `While you were in Virginia, I was in Earth' do you? Not unless it's some kind of New Age mud therapy you're into."
"I do apologise: on Virginia. Now, my office is this way..." He set off.
We didn't move.
Captain Schwarz turned round, a little puzzled but still smiling. "This way, please," he repeated.
"Why?" I asked.
"I want to debrief you concerning your stay in - on - Virginia."
"I decline," said Karen.
"You what?" Captain Schwarz's smile remained, but somehow looked a little sprayed-on.
"I decline. I don't wish to be debriefed."
"But, but you can't decline!"
"She just did," I said. "As, indeed, do I."
"This is most irregular. Look, see, everyone else is going." He spread his arms wide, to show us.
"Everyone else is American. It would be most irregular if we were Americans, but we're not. We have funny accents. We play cricket. We spell words how they're spelled, not how they sound. We won't drink tea if it's just come out of a fridge, and we won't be interviewed by you."
"But why don't you want to be debriefed? I've been in training for two months to debrief you!"
"Well sue them for not covering this small eventuality, then."
"Listen, we don't care to be debriefed," said Karen. "Now, are you going to show us to our quarters, or are you going to summon some guards to beat us up? We don't have all day, you know."
Captain Schwarz's face was by now decidedly grim. He looked around the room, but no-one else was present except for Lieutenant Lickit-Jaeger, who was standing stiffly to attention in that "no way, you're the one in charge, you handle it" manner that lower-ranking officers affect so well.
"Very well, I'll show you to your quarters," he growled, "but expect a visit from Colonel McNulty very shortly. She will not tolerate this kind of behaviour."
"Excuse me," said Karen. "Could you tell me what the outside of a nut is called?"
Captain Schwarz was, quite understandably, completely non-plussed. "Er, you mean the shell?"
"Yes, that's right. There's another word for it, though..."
"Yes, the husk. And what about the middle? The bit you eat?"
"You mean the kernel?"
"I think so. Oh, perhaps not, though: I'm sure the kernel is some bit of a fruit."
"No, the kernel is a bit of a nut."
Karen smiled, widely. "Good! When Colonel McNulty comes to my door, I'll tell her exactly what you you've just said. Now, where are our quarters?"
In the corner of my eye, I noticed that Lieutenant Lickit-Jaeger was trying very hard not to laugh.
Colonel McNulty did not visit me, so after an hour or so of unsuccessfully checking my room for bugs (well, unless there weren't any, in which case my checking was successful) I wandered over to the mess hall. It wasn't very crowded, but I did notice Jennifer "El Dorado" Wong ordering herself a drink, so contrived to strike up a conversation with her.
After ten minutes, it was patently clear that she had no intention of revealing anything which might have suggested the true nature of the people she had stayed with, whom she called the Moche. I fished with a variety of bait4, but she didn't bite on any of it. Thus satisfied that her interrogator was unlikely to break her defences either, I acquired myself a portion of some food called brats, just to see what they were, and sat down at a table.
Karen arrived and joined me. "My guess is that you didn't receive a visit from Colonel McNulty," she smiled.
"What did you do to her?"
"Well after I'd settled in, I went to the canteen and spoke with one of the navy cooks I met the last time I was here."
"Oh is this the USS Connecticut? I hadn't realised."
"Well I guessed it might be, and I was proven correct. Anyway, the cook told me that Colonel McNulty is in the habit of wearing pots of make-up, like she puts it on with a trowel."
"Isn't that against regulations?"
"It is, but she claims she has some exotic skin complaint and possesses a medical certificate. Really, she's just lauding it over the women who serve under her because she can get away with it and they can't."
"Probably lauding it over some of the men, too, if what I hear about the U.S. Navy is correct."
"So when she came knocking on my door, I was lying flat on my back on the floor, ready, and shouted for her to enter. She was surprised to see me there - "
"As one would be..."
" - so she put her hands on her hips, stared down at me, and said `What on Earth are you doing?' I replied `You're taking a risk aren't you?', and she said, with utmost predictability, `What do you mean?' So I asked her if she wasn't worried that her face would fall off, and it all sort of went downhill from that point onwards. She didn't get around even to discussing debriefing before she stormed off in a rage saying that she'd never been so insulted in her life before."
"Well she's never met you before."
"Oh, but she deserved it. Hello! Here she comes now!"
Colonel McNulty marched up to our table and scowled, ferociously.
"You two are proving a disruptive influence," she said.
Karen looked at me. "It's uncanny, isn't it?"
"How she can speak without cracking anything, yes."
"I wonder if she takes it off in one piece every night and leaves is by the side of the bed ready for the morning?"
The colonel seethed. "You, Ms Cox - "
"Hey! That's Dr Ms Cox if you don't mind!"
"You we're stuck with until your colleague arrives. But you," she looked at me, "we can get rid of immediately."
"Hmm. Am I to suppose that there is a British-registered vessel somewhere in the vicinity?"
"And am I further to suppose that if I don't agree to depart then I'll be in violation of some kind of trespass law?"
"You'll be in violation of US immigration laws, US residency laws, and UN conventions on diplomatic status."
"This vessel wouldn't happen to be the QE2 would it?"
"It's a submarine."
"I'd better pack my snorkel, then."
I glanced at Karen; her eyes were unexpectedly welling with tears.
I spent most of the fortnight I was aboard the nuclear submarine HMS Truculent in bed with a beast of a cold. Typical: I live for six months on an alien planet eating under-cooked squashed bird, among filthy people who regard water as a tool of the devil, sharing my hut with everything from fleas to rats to bats with rabies, and I'm perfectly healthy; I arrive back on my home planet and immediately go down with a stinker of a cold on a vessel that recycles paper tissues by drying them out in trouser presses.
I was thoroughly miserable.
Not, however, as miserable as the guy in the bunk below, who knew he was sure to be next in line for the virus.
Eventually, I recovered. The submarine docked at Antigua, and I was able to take a scheduled flight to London.
Of course, it was raining in England. Of course, I was stuck for 45 minutes underground because of an "incident at Leicester Square"5. Of course, my credit card had expired while I was away and I had to spend an hour in a bank proving my identity before they'd release enough funds for me to buy a train ticket to Cambridge. Of course, everyone sniggered at my orc-fashioned spectacles.
Of course, I missed Karen.
I arrived back at my house at around 3pm. The sun was getting low in the sky, but not so low that I couldn't see that the grass in my garden was about two feet high.
I put my key in the lock, turned it, and pushed.
The door didn't move.
I pushed again; it moved slightly. A sudden feeling of alarm came over me as I remembered that I'd left my dog at home when I went to Virginia; was the body of the poor animal blocking the doorway, lying where it had fallen as it finally gave up, exhausted, after days of plaintively trying to paw its way out to freedom?
It didn't smell like there was a dead dog there, though.
I gave the door a good kicking, and eventually managed to force it open wide enough to squeeze inside. On the floor was a pile of mail so big it was amazing that the postman could still get anything through the letter box.
By the telephone was a note. "You forgot your dog, didn't you? MUM."
Well, mothers do have their uses, and saving their children from prosecution for cruelty to animals is among the better ones.
I called her.
"Hello, Mum, it's Richard. I'm back. When can I pick up the dog?"
"Richard? It's great to hear from you at last! Where have you been? I was so worried!"
"Mum, you're worried all the time. You worry when I go to the supermarket. I've been doing fieldwork, like I told you I was before I left; it's rather secret, but I'm back now. When can I pick up the dog?"
"Did you have a good time?"
"Yes, I had a good time?"
"Did you meet any nice young ladies?"
"Mum! I was working!"
"Oh, so you did? What's her name?"
"Karen. Now when can I pick up the dog?"
"The dog? Oh, I'm sorry, it ran under a car in September and was smeared for fifty feet along the road."
Uh? "What? So he's dead? Cerebus is dead?"
"I'm afraid so. They haven't yet found a cure for being smeared fifty feet along the road. Now, about Karen..."
The last time I went away on fieldwork, I got back and found that at least half the people I knew were completely unaware that I'd been away. It seemed, however, that some of my colleagues at the department had been observant enough to notice, because when I opened my office door at 10am on Monday morning I found one of my female colleagues up against a filing cabinet with her skirt pulled above her waist, being rogered by one of her PhD supervisees.
"What the hell's going on?!" I asked, in disbelief.
"Oh! Dr Bartle!" said the student, startled, but unable to separate himself from his supervisor with any great haste.
"Richard, we, er, ha ha, thought you weren't due back for another three weeks."
"I don't believe this!" I gasped in dismay. "That filing cabinet contains my collection of stout glasses from Dublin! If you've so much as scratched any, you're going to have to replace them personally."
Well, some people, they just don't think.
I settled down back into my normal, humdrum routine.
Karen called, but it became swiftly obvious that our professional circumstances were against us. The number of vacancies in Social Anthropology at Cambridge was of the same order as the number at Oxford, ie. zero in both cases, and only likely to get worse over the next few years. We did manage to meet up a few times at weekends and have a good chat in MEKTO Orcish, but even then it was difficult finding a time we could both make.
Karen kept receiving offers to go on lecture tours in the USA, as, unsurprisingly, did I. Sooner or later, it was clear she was going to have to accept one, and eventually she did: four months in New England. She tried to arrange it so that I could come along too, but the funds weren't available for both of us.
I must admit that I would have been very tempted to accept the opportunity to go with her to the States if she'd pulled it off. However, as she didn't, and because I couldn't alter my own plans to accommodate her, I politely turned down all offers that came my way, instead biding my time until...
119 days after my return to Earth, I was summoned to Professor McCrea's office.
The professor was at the window when I arrived, swearing violently at the tourists outside.
"Why don't you answer him back?" one was saying to another.
"How can I, he's used all the best words!" was the other's reply.
McCrea slammed the window shut, turned around, and waved me to a chair.
"Well, Bartle, I really don't know what to say," he said. "Against all the evidence, it seems that your ethnology was a resounding success, and the Virginians are most pleased by it. So pleased, in fact, that they have invited you back to their planet to undertake more of the same, only this time working for them. You'd be attached to the demological6 department of the University of, er, oh, Cambridge, of course. Their Cambridge, that is."
"Do I really have to go? It is only 119 days or so since I got back from the place."
"Well no, you don't have to, of course not, it's entirely voluntary. A second sabbatical would put an extra teaching and administrative load on the other members of staff, naturally, so under normal circumstances such a request would not be granted. Given the prestige which something like this would bring the department, however, I am prepared to allow it."
"I see. So you want me to go, really, then?"
"As I said, it's not up to me, although I should imagine that it would rather help your career somewhat if you did choose to accept the offer."
"What people do they want me to study?"
"A bunch of elves, the, er, hold on, I have the name somewhere..." He began to lift up disorganised piles of papers on his desk.
I couldn't hold out any longer. "Oh, whoever they are... Tell the Virginians I accept!"
Fieldwork may be testing at times, but it has its compensations.
1 My beer belly, but I also covered up my privates, just for form.
2 "My body won't stand for that kind of treatment," or similar.
3 Strictly speaking, of course, mundane isn't a word that can be applied to planets other than Earth. I note this only to stop your writing to me pointing it out.
4 "A golden opportunity", "the metalworkers g(u)ild", "rich farmlands", "was the king g(u)ilty?", "valuable research", and similar teasingly bad puns.
5 Great: you throw yourself under a train and your only epitaph is a euphemism.
6 It's Greek. Anthropo doesn't work for non-humans, so they chose demo, meaning "common people", instead. You really wanted to know that, didn't you?
21st January 1999: ltlwo12.htm