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by Ronald Linson

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

part 1

I leaned over Wallace’s desk, trying to get in his face. “What part of ’that‘s stupid’ don’t you understand?”

The man didn’t even have the grace to flinch. “It is what it is,” Wallace said.

“Stupid,” I snarled.

He sighed in that way only bureaucrats can. “Again,” he said, tapping the mustard yellow plastic cover of the folder in front of him, “the Colonization Board believes it can recoup the cost of the failed colony by promoting guided tours.”

“I was wrong,” I said. “It’s not stupid. It’s batshit crazy!” I pointed out the space station window at the opalescent brilliance drifting by. “That planet,” I said, “is deadly. I’d like to meet the idiots whose bright idea it was to colonize it in the first place.”

“You can’t,” Wallace said. “They’re dead.”

“Yeah, that’s my point,” I said. “It killed them, every single one, and they want to send in more people.”

“I understand this year’s survival challenge was a success. They want to build on that.”

I shook my head, sat down, stood up again. “I have no problem with survival challenges. Those guys get months of training.” I barked a laugh. “And half of them still didn’t make it back alive. What does that tell you?”

“Trina,” Wallace said with another bureaucratic sigh, “these tours will be conducted by experienced guides such as yourself, with stringent measures to ensure safety. Each tour will last a week, going to selected locations.” He tapped the folder again. “Every contingency has been accounted for. The first group will arrive tomorrow.”

“Uh-huh,” I said, crossing my arms in front of my chest. “What if I refuse to do it? You lied to me about where the job was.”

The balding little pencil pusher smiled for the first time. “As I recall, you didn’t bother to ask. You just signed the contract, and hopped on the first ship headed this way. Now, if you choose to break your contract, you can go back to where I found you, working for minimum wage as an assistant guide on Earth, picking up after rich, spoiled college kids. That would be a serious blow to your career aspirations, I’m sure.”

* * *

“Welcome to Isn’t She Pretty, which used to be the colony world of Minerva. My name is Trina Napolitano, and I’ll be your guide for the next eight days.”

There were nine in the group. I checked my tablet, putting names to faces. Frank and Edna Kendall would be the elderly couple sitting front row center. Rayder Flint, a dark-haired thirtyish man to the left of the Kendalls. Millie Jones and Alisha Razak, a pair of college-aged girls giggling in the back. And, in the second row, the Taylor family: Leonard and Darlene, and their sons Brandon and Zachary.

I thumbed the screen to confirm everyone was present, then slipped the tablet into my pocket. I rubbed my hands together and opened my mouth to begin the introductions.

One of the Taylor boys raised his hand.

“Yes,” I said. “A question?”

The boy stood. He was about fourteen, with shaggy black hair, a caramel complexion, and a rampant overpopulation of zits. He also had that scowl teenagers get when they’ve discovered something they perceive as unfair.

Inwardly, I cringed. Teenagers were the bane of overworked tour guides everywhere.

“Yeah,” he said, his voice cracking. “This tour is supposed to be for seven days. You just said it’s gonna be eight. What’s the deal?”

“Zack,” Darlene Taylor hissed, “sit down. Stop making trouble.”

“It’s all right.” I lied. “As I was about to explain, before we begin the tour we’ll spend a day on orientation and training.”

Zack’s scowl turned into a grimace. “Training?” He rounded on his parents. “You said this was going to be a vacation. What kind of bullshit vacation makes you do training?”

Leonard and Darlene leapt to their feet, and just like that, it was a full-blown scream-a-thon. Brandon, the younger boy, huddled in his chair, covering his ears.

I pulled out the tablet, brought up the reporting function, input “Children are strongly contraindicated,” and put it away. By this time, the other members of the group had gotten up and were watching from a safe distance.

“Aren’t you going to do something?” one of the girls asked.

“Yes, I’m going to quit,” was what I wanted to say. Instead, I extracted another nifty piece of technology from my pocket, put it to my lips, and blew.

The shrill whistle echoed off the walls. Everyone froze, turning to stare at me.

Everyone except Brandon Taylor, who sprang from his chair and shoved his brother hard in the chest. “Zack, you’re such a dick!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. “Okay,” I said, “if you were the only ones here, I’d let this farce continue and go take a nap or something. But these people paid good money to see this beautiful world, and you’re not going to ruin it for them. You have a choice: settle down and enjoy the tour, or I can give you a refund and send you back up on the next shuttle. What’ll it be?”

* * *

“Wow, it is beautiful,” Millie Jones said, her voice muffled by the suit.

“Remember,” I said loudly so the whole group could hear, “keep your suits on at all times with the visors locked in place. The sun is a hot F2 class star and it puts out a lot of ultraviolet radiation.”

“Wouldn’t sunglasses and a lot of sunblock be good enough?” Alisha Razak asked. “I mean, they’re not even sealed.” With a ripping sound, she slid her sleeve up to reveal her bare forearm.

“Pull it down,” I yelled at her. When she did, I snatched her hand, making sure it was tucked into her glove and that the Velcro fastenings were secure.

“What the hell,” Alisha said.

“You can get a nasty sunburn in as little as thirty seconds,” I said, then repeated it more loudly for everyone’s benefit.

I stood near the entrance to the base station, which we were supposed to now call “the hotel,” watching them get used to moving around in the suits. On this initial foray, I had asked that they not leave the ten yard wide cleared area around the entrance. So far, they seemed content to examine the coral formations at its perimeter. I knew exactly who was who since their names were stenciled onto the suits, front and back.

I thought it a good opportunity to introduce them to the use of the suit’s emergency transceivers. Reaching up, I found and pressed a nub near the side of the visor. A soft beep told me the channel was open. “Testing,” I said. “This is a test of the emergency broadcast system.” I explained how to activate it. “Remember, when you use the channel, everyone in the group will hear you and can respond. The signal is also relayed to the shuttles and the hotel, if they’re in range.” I asked everyone to respond to me, and I got some weird echoes, but the system seemed to be working well enough.

Frank Kendall ambled over, holding a piece of coral. “Miss Napolitano—”

“Please,” I said, smiling, “call me Trina.”

Through his visor, I could see that he wasn’t comfortable being on a first name basis. If he wanted to keep it formal, that was fine by me. “Yes, Mr. Kendall?”

He looked relieved. “In the orientation, you said this material was coral.” He held it up. It was about the size of my fist, knobby on one side, with a clean break on the other. It seemed to glisten in the sunlight, throwing off subtle hues of pink and orange. “But it’s not coral.”

“True,” I said, “it’s not coral in the aquatic sense. I don’t give details because it tends to bore people.”

“I doubt I’d be bored,” Frank Kendall said, smiling. “Since I retired, I’ve taken up exobiology as a sort of hobby. It’s why I’m here, actually, and for some reason, there isn’t much information out there about this planet.”

“Well, in that case,” I said. “It’s one of the weirder lifeforms we’ve encountered. It’s a silicon-based microbe that absorbs and stores solar energy, then uses it to build up the coral at night. What’s really interesting is that during this process, the microbe releases excess energy in the form of hard ultraviolet and X-rays, which is why we won’t be going out—”

“Hey, tour guide!”

I sighed and offered Frank Kendall an apologetic look. He smiled sympathetically in return.

Zack Taylor stomped up to us, his boots crunching in the gravel. “We’re done walking around in circles. What now?”

The little jerk was right, as much as I hated to admit it. The group had had plenty of time to get accustomed to the suits.

“All right,” I called, striding to the center of the cleared area, “we’re going to go on a short hike up to that ridge.” I pointed to the west, ignoring the groan behind me. “It’s got a great view. Then we’ll come back to the hotel for lunch and decide where we want to go this afternoon.”

Zack Taylor scowled at me, muttering under his breath.

I flashed him my best toothy grin. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “It’ll be fun.”

* * *

I entered the hotel’s administrative office, and the hologram of Wallace smiled at me from behind a non-holographic shabbier version of the desk in his office up in the orbital transfer station. I sat down across from him, wary. A smile on his face was never a good sign.

“Good evening,” he said. “How is it going so far?”

“Fine,” I said cautiously.

Wallace nodded. “That’s good to hear.”

I said nothing, waiting for the inevitable.

“But,” Wallace said, “there are a couple of things I’d like to discuss.”

“Just a couple?” I asked, immediately kicking my brain in the amygdale for using my mouth without permission.

“Yes,” Wallace said, apparently ignoring the provocation. “First, I found some of your comments rather amusing.”

“Ah, that wasn’t... What?”

“For instance, you suggested that sunblock be applied as a backup to the suits.” He chuckled.

“Yeah, because one of the...” I trailed off, frowning. “Wait, why was that funny?”

Wallace folded his hands on the desk, a sign of impending condescension. “The suits are more than adequate. Sunblock would be redundant. It is none of my concern if they wish to use their own, but we will not be providing it.”

I blinked at the cheap bastard. “I’ll recommend that they bring some, then.”

Wallace shrugged. “That is entirely up to you, which brings me to my other point. There have been complaints.”

I wasn’t surprised. Have you ever dropped a slice of buttered bread and it always seemed to land butter side down? That’s how complaints are in any job. No matter how well you do your work, negative comments will always land on your boss’s desk, and then there’s a big mess and a lot of swearing.

Wallace sniffed at my lack of response. “The Taylors report that you used a sonic weapon to disrupt a family discussion.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. This was ludicrous bordering on the loony. I pulled out the pink plastic whistle and put it on the desk.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“This,” I said, “is your sonic weapon.” I picked it up and gave it a little fweep.

“I don’t understand,” Wallace said. The poor sod really did seem confused. “What...” he began, trailing off, apparently unable to formulate a meaningful question.

I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. “Wallace,” I said, “did you review the recordings of the orientation sessions?”

He looked affronted. “I did not,” he declared. “I haven’t the time.”

“I see,” I said, glancing out the window at the deep purple glow of Isn’t She Pretty’s night. “You’ve never actually been down here, have you?”

“No, of course not.”

I sighed. That explained a lot.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2018 by Ronald Linson

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