The Leviathan in Flight
The bureaucrat fell from the sky.
For an instant Miranda lay blue and white beneath him, the icecaps fat and ready to melt, and then he was down. He took a highspeed across the stony plains of the Piedmont to the heliostat terminus at Port Richmond, and caught the first flight out. The airshipLeviathanlofted him across the fall line and over the forests and coral hills of the Tidewater. Specialized ecologies were astir there, preparing for the transforming magic of the jubilee tides. In ramshackle villages and hidden plantations people made their varied provisions for the evacuation.
TheLeviathan’s lounge was deserted. Hands clasped behind him, the bureaucrat stared moodily out the stern windows. The Piedmont was dim and blue, a storm front on the horizon. He imagined the falls, where fish-hawks hovered on rising thermals and the river Noon cascaded down and lost its name. Below, the Tidewater swarmed with life, like blue-green mold growing magnified in a petri dish. The thought of all the mud and poverty down there depressed him. He yearned for the cool, sterile environments of deep space.
Bright specks of color floated on the brown water, coffles of houseboats being towed upriver as the haut-bourgeois prudently made for the Port Richmond incline while the rates were still low. He touched a window control and the jungle leaped up at him, misty trees resolving into individual leaves. The heliostat’s shadow rippled along the north bank of the river, skimming lightly over mud flats, swaying phragmites, and gnarled water oaks. Startled, a clutch of acorn-mimetic octopi dropped from a low branch, brown circles of water fleeing as they jetted into the silt.
“Smell that air,” Korda’s surrogate said.
The bureaucrat sniffed. He smelled the faint odor of soil from the baskets of hanging vines, and a sweet whiff of droppings from the wicker birdcages. “Could use a cleansing, I suppose.”
“You have no romance in your soul.” The surrogate leaned against the windowsill, straight-armed, looking like a sentimental skeleton. The flickering image of Korda’s face reflected palely in the glass. “I’d give anything to be down here in your place.”
“Why don’t you, then?” the bureaucrat asked sourly. “You have seniority.”
“Don’t be flippant. This is not just another smuggling case. The whole concept of technology control is at stake here. If we let just one self-replicating technology through—well, you know how fragile a planet is. If the Division has any justification for its existence at all, it’s in exactly this sort of action. So I would appreciate it if just this once you would make the effort to curb your negativism.”
“I have to say what I think. That’s what I’m being paid for, after all.”
“A very common delusion.” Korda moved away from the window, bent to pick up an empty candy dish, and glanced at its underside. There was a fussy nervousness to his motions strange to one who had actually met him. Korda in person was heavy and lethargic. Surrogation seemed to bring out a submerged persona, an overfastidious little man normally kept drowned in flesh. “Native pottery always has an unglazed area on the bottom, have you noticed?”
“That’s where it stands in the kiln.” Korda looked blank. “This is a planet, it has a constant gravity. You can’t fire things in zero gravity here.”
With a baffled shake of his head Korda put down the dish. “Was there anything else you wanted to cover?” he asked.
“I put in a Request For—”
“—Authority. Yes, yes, I have it on my desk. I’m afraid it’s right out of the question. Technology Transfer is in a very delicate position with the planetary authorities. Now don’t look at me like that. I routed it through offworld ministry to the Stone House, and they said no. They’re touchy about intrusions on their autonomy down here. They sent the Request straight back. With restrictions—you are specifically admonished not to carry weapons, perform arrests, or in any way represent yourself as having authority to coerce cooperation on your suspect’s part.” He reached up and tilted a basket of vines, so he could fossick about among them. When he let it go, it swung irritably back and forth.
“How am I going to do my job? I’m supposed to—what?—just walk up to Gregorian and say, Excuse me, I have no authority even to speak to you, but I have reason to suspect that you’ve taken something that doesn’t belong to you, and wonder if you’d mind terribly returning it?”
There were several writing desks built into the paneling under the windows. Korda swung one out and made a careful inventory of its contents: paper, charcoal pens, blotters. “I don’t see why you’re being so difficult about this,” he said at last. “Don’t pout, I know you can do it. You’re competent enough when you put your mind to it. Oh, and I almost forgot, the Stone House has agreed to assign you a liaison. Someone named Chu, out of internal security.”
“Will he have authority to arrest Gregorian?”
“In theory, I’m sure he will. But you know planetary government—in practice I suspect he’ll be more interested in keeping an eye on you.”
“Terrific.” Ahead, a pod of sounding clouds swept toward them, driven off of Ocean by winds born half a world away. TheLeviathanlifted its snout a point, then plunged ahead. The light faded to gray, and rain drenched the heliostat. “We don’t even know where to find the man.”
Korda folded the desk back into the wall. “I’m sure you won’t have any trouble finding someone who knows where he is.”
The bureaucrat glared out into the storm. Raindrops drummed against the fabric of the gas bag, pounded the windows, and were driven down. Winds bunched the rain in great waves, alternating thick washes of water with spates of relative calm. The land dissolved, leaving the airship suspended in chaos. The din of rain and straining engines made it difficult to talk. It felt like the end of the world. “You realize that in a few months, all this will be under water? If we haven’t settled Gregorian’s case by then, it’ll never be done.”
“You’ll be done long before then. I’m sure you’ll be back at the Puzzle Palace in plenty of time to keep your sub from taking over your post.” Korda’s face smiled, to indicate that he was joking.
“You didn’t tell me you’d given someone my duties. Just who do you have subbing for me anyway?”
“Philippe was gracious enough to agree to hold down the fort for the duration.”
“Philippe.” There was a cold prickling at the back of his neck, as if sharks were circling overhead. “You gave my post to Philippe?”
“I thought you liked Philippe.”
“I like him fine,” the bureaucrat said. “But is he right for the job?”
“Don’t take it so personally. There’s work to be done, and Philippe is very good at this sort of thing. Should the Division grind to a halt just because you’re away? Frankly that’s not an attitude I want to encourage.” The surrogate reopened the writing desk, removed a television set, and switched it on. The sound boomed, and he turned it down to the mumbling edge of inaudibility. He flipped through the channels, piling image upon image, dissatisfied with them all.
TheLeviathanbroke free of the clouds. Sunlight flooded the lounge, and the bureaucrat blinked, dazzled. The airship’s shadow on the bright land below was wrapped in a diffuse rainbow. The ship lifted joyously, searching for the top of the sky.
“Are you looking for something on that thing, or just fidgeting with it because you know it’s annoying?”
Korda looked hurt. He straightened, turning his back on the set. “I thought I might find one of Gregorian’s commercials. It would give you some idea what you’re up against. Never mind. I really do have to be getting back to work. Be a good lad, and see if you can’t handle this thing in an exemplary fashion, hmm? I’m relying on you.”
They shook hands, and Korda’s face vanished from the surrogate. On automatic, the device returned itself to storage.
“Philippe!” the bureaucrat said. “Those bastards!” He felt sickly aware that he was losing ground rapidly. He had to wrap this thing up, and get back to the Puzzle Palace as quickly as possible. Philippe was the acquisitive type. He leaned forward and snapped off the television.
When the screen went dead, everything was subtly changed, as if a cloud had passed from the sun, or a window opened into a stuffy room.
* * *
He sat for a time, thinking. The lounge was all air and light, with sprays of orchids arranged in sconces between the windows and rainbirds singing in the wicker cages hung between the pots of vines. It was appointed for the tourist trade but, ironically, planetary authority had closed down the resorts in the Tidewater to discourage those selfsame tourists, experience having shown offworlders to be less tractable to evacuation officers than were natives. Yet for all their obvious luxury, the fixtures had been designed with economy of weight foremost and built of the lightest materials available, cost be damned. They’d never recover the added expense with fuel savings; it had all been done to spite the offworld battery manufacturers.
The bureaucrat was sensitive to this kind of friction. It arose wherever the moving edge of technology control touched on local pride.
“Excuse me, sir.” A young man entered, carrying a small table. He was wearing an extraordinary gown, all shimmering moons and stars, ogres and ibises, woven into a cloth that dopplered from deepest blue to profoundest red and back again as he moved. He set the table down, drew a cloth away from the top to reveal a fishbowl without any fish, and extended a white-gloved hand. “I’m Lieutenant Chu, your liaison officer.”
They shook. “I thought I was to be assigned somebody from internal security,” the bureaucrat said.
“We like to keep a low profile when we operate in the Tidewater, you understand.” Chu opened the robe. Underneath he was dressed in airship-corps blues. “Currently, I’m posing as an entertainment officer.” He spread his arms, tilted his head coquettishly, as if waiting for a compliment. The bureaucrat decided he did not like Chu.
“This is ludicrous. There’s no need for all this hugger-mugger. I only want to talk with the man, that’s all.”
A disbelieving smile. Chu had cheeks like balls and a small star-shaped mark by his left eye that disappeared when his mouth turned up. “What will you do when you catch up with him then, sir?”
“I’ll interview him to determine whether he’s in possession of contraband technology. Then, if it develops that he is, it’s my job to educate him as to his responsibilities and convince him to return it. That’s all I’m authorized to do.”
“Suppose he says no. What will you do then?”
“Well, I’m certainly not going to beat him up and drag him off to prison, if that’s what you mean.” The bureaucrat patted his stomach. “Just look at this paunch.”
“Perhaps,” Chu said judiciously, “you have some of the offplanet science powers one sees on television. Muscle implants and the like.”
“Proscribed technology is proscribed technology. If we employed it, we’d be no better than criminals ourselves.” The bureaucrat coughed, and with sudden energy said, “Where shall we start?”
The liaison officer straightened with a jerk, like a puppet seized by its strings, immediately all business. “If it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d like to learn first how much you know about Gregorian, what leads you have, and so on. Then I can make my own report.”
“He’s a very charming man, to begin with,” the bureaucrat said. “Everyone I’ve spoken with agrees on that. A native Mirandan, born somewhere in the Tidewater. His background is a bit murky. He worked for some years in the bioscience labs in the Outer Circle. Good work, as I understand it, but nothing exceptional. Then, about a month ago, he quit, and returned to Miranda. He’s set himself up as some kind of bush wizard, I understand. A witch doctor or something, you doubtless have more information on that than I do. But shortly after he left, it was discovered that he may have misappropriated a substantial item of proscribed technology. That’s when Technology Transfer got involved.”
“That’s not supposed to be possible.” Chu smiled mockingly. “Tech Transfer’s embargo is supposed to be absolute.”
“What was stolen?”
“That important, eh?” Chu made a thoughtful, clicking noise with his tongue. “Well, what do we know about the man himself?”
“Surprisingly little. His likeness, of course, geneprint, a scattering of standard clearance profiles. Interviews with a few acquaintances. He seems to have had no real friends, and he never discussed his past. In retrospect it seems clear he’d been keeping his record as uncluttered as possible. He must have been planning the theft for years.”
“Do you have a dossier on him?”
“A copy of Gregorian’s dossier,” the bureaucrat said. He opened the briefcase, removed the item, gave it a little shake.
Chu craned curiously. “What else have you got in there?”
“Nothing,” the bureaucrat said. He swiveled the briefcase to show it was empty, then handed over the dossier. It had been printed in the white lotus format currently popular in the high worlds, and folded into a handkerchief-sized square.
“Thank you.” Chu held the dossier over his head and twisted his hand. The square of paper disappeared. He turned his hand back and forth to demonstrate that it was empty.
The bureaucrat smiled. “Do that again.”
“Oh, the first rule of magic is never do the same trick twice in a row. The audience knows what to expect.” His eyes glittered insolently. “But if I might show you one thing more?”
“Is it relevant?”
Chu shrugged. “It’s instructive, anyway.”
“Oh, go ahead,” the bureaucrat said. “As long as it doesn’t take too long.”
Chu opened a cage and lifted out a rainbird. “Thank you.” With a gesture, he dimmed the windows, suffusing the lounge with twilight. “I open my act with this illusion. Thusly:”
He bowed deeply and swept out a hand. His movements were all jerky, distinct, artificial. “Welcome, dear friends, countrymen, and offworlders. It is my duty and pleasure today to entertain and enlighten you with legerdemain and scientific patter.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Then I go into a little rant about the mutability of life here, and its myriad forms of adaptation to the jubilee tides. Where Terran flora and fauna—most particularly including ourselves—cannot face the return of Ocean, to the native biota the tides are merely a passing and regular event. Evolution, endless eons of periodic flooding, blah blah blah. Sometimes I compare Nature to a magician—myself by implication—working changes on a handful of tricks. All of which leads in to the observation that much of the animal life here is dimorphic, which means simply that it has two distinct forms, depending on which season of the great year is in effect.
“Then I demonstrate.” He held the rainbird perched on his forefinger, gently stroking its head. The long tailfeathers hung down like teardrops. “The rainbird is a typical shapeshifter. When the living change comes over the Tidewater, when Ocean rises to drown half of Continent, it adapts by transforming into a more appropriate configuration.” Suddenly he plunged both hands deep into the bowl of water. The bird struggled wildly, and disappeared in a swirl of bubbles and sand.
The illusionist lifted his hands from the water. The bureaucrat noted that he had not so much as gotten his sleeves wet.
When the water cleared, a multicolored fish was swimming in great agitation in the water, long fins trailing behind. “Behold!” Chu cried. “The sparrowfish—in great summer morph an aviform, and a pisciform for the great winter. One of the marvelous tricks that Nature here plays.”
The bureaucrat applauded. “Very neatly done,” he said with only slight irony.
“I also do tricks with a jar of liquid helium. Shattering roses and the like.”
“I doubt that will be necessary. You said there was a point to your demonstration?”
“Absolutely.” The illusionist’s eyes glittered. “It’s this: Gregorian is going to be a very difficult man to catch. He’s a magician, you see, and native to the Tidewater. He can change his own form, or that of his enemy, whichever he pleases. He can kill with a thought. More importantly, he understands the land here, and you don’t. He can tap its power and use it against you.”
“You don’t actually believe that Gregorian is a magician? That he has supernatural powers, I mean.”
In the face of that fanatical certainty, the bureaucrat did not know what to say. “Ahem. Yes. Thank you for your concern. Now, what say we get down to business?”
“Oh yes, sir, immediately, sir.” The young man touched a pocket, and then another. His expression changed, grew pained. In an embarrassed voice he said, “Ah … I’m afraid I left my materials in the forward stowage. If you would wait?”
“Of course.” The bureaucrat tried not to be pleased by the young man’s obvious discomfort.
With Chu gone, the bureaucrat returned to his contemplation of the passing forest below. The airship soared and curved, dipped its nose and sank low in the air. The bureaucrat remembered his first sighting of it back in Port Richmond, angling in for a docking. Complex with flukes, elevators, and lifting planes, the great airship somehow transcended the antique awkwardness of its design. It descended slowly, gracefully, rotor blades thundering. Barnacles covered its underbelly, and mooring ropes hung from its jaws like strings of kelp.
A few minutes later theLeviathandocked at a heliostat tower at the edge of a dusty little river town. A lone figure in crisp white climbed the rope ladder, and then the heliostat cast off again. Nobody debarked.
The lounge door opened, and a slim woman in the uniform of internal security entered. She strode forward, hand extended, to offer her credentials. “Lieutenant-Liaison Emilie Chu,” she said. Then, “Sir? Are you quite all right?”
Copyright © 1991 by Michael Swanwick